7 reviews

A Thread of Grace
by Mary Doria Russell

Published: 2005-12-06
Paperback : 464 pages
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47 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 5 of 7 members
Set in Italy during the dramatic finale of World War II, this new novel is the first in seven years by the bestselling author of The Sparrow and Children of God.

It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her ...
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Set in Italy during the dramatic finale of World War II, this new novel is the first in seven years by the bestselling author of The Sparrow and Children of God.

It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to be safe at last, now that the Italians have broken with Germany and made a separate peace with the Allies. The Blums will soon discover that Italy is anything but peaceful, as it becomes overnight an open battleground among the Nazis, the Allies, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive.

Mary Doria Russell sets her first historical novel against this dramatic background, tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty-three thousand Jews during the war’s final phase. The result of five years of meticulous research, A Thread of Grace is an ambitious, engrossing novel of ideas, history, and marvelous characters that will please Russell’s many fans and earn her even more.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Review

Mary Doria Russell's extraordinary and complex historical novel, A Thread of Grace, is the kind of book that you will find yourself haunted by long after finishing the last page. It opens with a group of Jewish refugees being escorted to safe-keeping by Italian soldiers. After making the arduous journey over a steep mountain pass, they are welcomed into a small village with warm food and clean beds. They have barely laid their heads to rest when news is received that Mussolini has just surrendered Italy to Hitler, putting them in danger yet again. This opening sequence is a grim foreshadowing of the heart-breaking journey these characters will experience in their struggle for survival.

The rich fictional narrative is woven through the factual military maneuvers and political games at the end of WW II, sharing a little-known story of a group of Italian citizens that sheltered more than 40,000 Jews from grueling work camp executions. Rather than the bleak and hopeless feeling that might be expected, the novel has the opposite effect; it reminds us that just as there will always be war, crime, and death, so too will there be good people who selflessly sacrifice themselves to ease the suffering of others. Perhaps best of all, Russell succinctly opens and closes her writing with short pieces that bookend the story with the force of a freight train. Her moving finale wraps up her narrative in the present day, with a death bed scene that's sure to rip the heart out of readers of every faith and ancestry.

On the surface, Russell's third novel may seem quite different from her earlier works. Both The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God , were futuristic stories about Earth's first contact with alien life forms, but a closer look reveals several similarities. Fans of her earlier books will be pleased to find that Emilio Sandoz, the charismatic Jesuit priest from the first two books, finds new life in Renzo Leoni--A Thread of Grace's charming and haunted chameleon. The two have different circumstances and histories, but both characters are made of the same cloth--tormented by their consciences and plagued by unrequited love. Also similar to her earlier books, the characters in A Thread of Grace don't all enjoy a happy ending. A note in the reader's guide tells us that Russell flipped a coin to determine the fate of some of the characters. This may be upsetting for many readers, particularly those used to Hollywood endings, but it does serve as a frank reminder of the arbitrary nature of war and death. --Victoria Griffith


Greater Italy 1943 Anno Fascista XXII

8 September 1943

Porto Sant’Andrea, Liguria Northwestern Coast of Italy

A simple answer to a simple question. That’s all Werner Schramm requires.

“Where’s the church?” he yells, belligerent and sick—sicker yet when his shout becomes a swampy cough.

A small crowd gathers to appreciate the spectacle: a Waffen-SS officer, thin, fortyish, and liquored up. He props his hands against his knees, coughing harder. “La basilica!” he gasps, remembering the Italian. “San Giovanni—dove è?” ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Renzo and Schramm have both committed crimes against civilians during war, but the priest Don Osvaldo feels there is some essential difference between the two men’s actions. Is the difference merely a matter of scale, or is there an ethical difference? Does your emotional response to each character color your opinion?

2. Renzo attempts to remain apolitical during the Nazi occupation. Was that a moral position or should he have fought the Nazis from the beginning? Is moderation or neutrality possible or even desirable during war?

3. We are accustomed to admiring the partisan resistance to German occupation during World War II. In today’s world there are many places where armed resistance to occupying forces is called terrorism. What makes a resistance legitimate? Does the motive of the occupying force make any difference?

4. Claudette’s children never understand her, and she dies a mystery to them. Have you been affected by the war experiences of a family member? Were you aware of how their experiences affected them?

5. Was Iacopo Soncini a bad husband or a good rabbi? How does having a family change the responsibilities of the clergy?

6. Imagine that you heard Schramm’s confession at the beginning of the book. If you were Don Osvaldo, what would you have told Schramm? Are there unforgivable sins?

7. Was Schramm’s remorse genuine at the end of the book? Why did he put his uniform back on when he was ordered to by the German officer at the hospital?

8. How would you feel about a moral universe where Schramm went to heaven and Renzo went to hell?

9. People who didn’t live through World War II often believe they’d have hidden someone like Anne Frank or helped refugees from Nazi Germany the way the Italian peasants did. What would be an analogous risk today?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Author Q&A from the Publisher:

A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell

QQ: What inspired you to write A Thread of Grace?

Mary Doria Russell: Shortly after my conversion to Judaism, I came across Alexander Stille’s book Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. The section called "The Priest, the Rabbi and the Aviator" was so dramatic, and so surprising, I set the book aside. I knew that I had to write about that era of Italian history somehow. When I mentioned this to a Polish Catholic friend, Maria Rybak, she told me a story about her aunt, who witnessed a Gestapo roundup of Jews during the war. "Never judge those of us who lived through those times," Maria’s aunt told her. "I saw a Jewish woman standing in the back of a truck with a baby in her arms. A lady standing in the crowd near me said, ‘Give me your child!’ The woman in the crowd could have been beaten for offering to take that baby. The mother had to decide: give her baby away or take the child with her to God knows what. Until you can imagine that, you can’t understand what it was like for us." So one of my goals with this novel was to recreate the immediacy of decisions like that. I wanted readers to buy in to decisions the characters made, and then "live" with the consequences as the story progressed. There was another moment that gave impetus to the writing of this story. One night I watched a PBS special about the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. A French woman was interviewed because her house was right in the middle of what became a battlefield. She and her kids hid in a cellar hour after hour, while mortars and machine gunfire exploded above them. When the noise finally stopped, she and the kids came upstairs into . . . nothing. The house had been blown to bits. Now, that woman understood the historic moment and the importance of that battle, and she was grateful she and her children had survived. But what stuck in my mind was her final lament: "I had just finished wallpapering the hallway." You can see how her remark came to be reflected in my novel.

QQ: It took you seven years to write A Thread of Grace. Why?

MDR: Well, first of all, there was a ton of research to do about the era, the war, the issues, the characters, but there were a lot of factors that slowed things down–primarily the fact that I became a card-carrying member of the Sandwich Generation. Just as menopause was hitting me like a brick upside the head, my husband’s dad was dying of congestive heart failure; Don’s mother is now ninety, and lives in Illinois, despite my warmest desire that she be nearer. My own mom, who lived in New Hampshire, fought ovarian cancer for a grueling fifty-five months. Two days ago, we thought my father would be going in for open-heart surgery, but it turned out he didn’t need it after all. The adrenaline is still draining out of my system, thirty hours later. Let’s see. . . my son learned to drive and started to date while I was working on A Thread of Grace, and got his heart broken, and had a minor accident, and applied to colleges. He leaves the nest for a semester at a time, and got straight A’s his freshman year, but comes back every few weeks to leave dirty dishes in the sink. Oh, and the collie died in my arms after running up spectacular vet bills, and then we got a golden retriever puppy; I was housebreaking Leo while writing about April 1944. Then I got myself a three-year-old rescue dachshund from Petfinder.com while editing the manuscript, just because I wanted her, dammit. And she is adorable, but the upshot is, my life is just as full of distractions and responsibilities and self-inflicted complication as everybody else’s. So that’s why A Thread of Grace took seven years to finish. I gave up at least once a week, but I have an almost pathological drive for task completion, and e-mail from readers (some of whom have become dear friends) kept me going.

QQ: Did you have a day job when you started writing? Has the success of the books changed your life much?

MDR: I was a PTA mom while writing my first two novels, The Sparrow and Children of God. We could afford to have me stay at home to raise Danny because my husband, Don, is a software engineer who makes a good buck and has never been out of work a single day since graduating from the University of Illinois, back before the earth’s crust cooled. When we moved to the Cleveland area in 1983, we were able to buy a lovely house in South Euclid for a very modest price, so we have never been burdened by unreasonable debt. Our son has al­ways gone to the quite wonderful public schools here. The success of the first two books allowed me to fund my son’s college tuition at the University of Toledo, but he’s helped a lot by getting fabu­lous grades and a couple of generous merit scholarships.My big personal indulgence has been to hire Terry Wade and Daphne Robinson, who come once a week to keep the house up to standards my clean-crazy Italian nonna would have admired. You may notice that Teresina and Dafne do the same for Mirella Soncini in A Thread of Grace.

QQ:What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

MDR: In science fiction, two books stand out. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was the first novel I read twice, and then again every few years. She brought an anthropological sensibility to science fiction that I appreciated. There were multiple cultures, multiple languages, and the inevitable misunderstandings that result when a stranger is coping with utterly foreign con­cepts. I loved the device of an unreliable narrator, and reread this book before beginning The Sparrow, to study how she used literary aikido on her readers. The second book is Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. That book, too, is decades old, but stands up to rereading well. Again, there is a theme of well-intentioned misunderstanding of language, and a sort of archaeological approach to science fiction, this time with an appealing religious twist: after a nuclear holo­caust, literacy is preserved in isolated Catholic monasteries. Among more recent books, I lean toward the kind of exquisite and hilarious observation of contemporary society that Karen Joy Fowler provides in The Jane Austen Book Club, and I loved her earlier World War II home front novel The Sweetheart Season. Karen has a way of making devastatingly funny remarks about less-than-admirable behavior, without ever being nasty or hurtful to the person involved. Another author whose work is both laugh-aloud funny and ironic, but also slyly sweet, is David Sosnowski. In his novel Vamped, he takes modern American culture and twists it around a single fictional fact: what if vampires were not only real, but eventually vamped nearly the entire population of the world? (Each meal makes a new vampire–a logical outcome of vam­pirism nobody else seems to have noted.) David makes you believe that this is just how America would react: with marketing campaigns for vacations in Alaska during the winter (no sun for six months, get it?) and illegal hunting trips for Òfree rangeÓ human blood. On my Web site, www.marydoriarussell.info, there’s a list of other books I’ve enjoyed, along with an annotated bibliography for A Thread of Grace.

QQ:What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

MDR: I seem to gravitate toward big operatic movies: Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Tombstone. I like a moral and literary structure, the sense of trying to live by some moral code, even when society is debased by war or crime. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are comedies that my family and I watch until we know the entire script by heart. The Princess Bride and Young Frankenstein were early favorites. And then there’s Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, which is nonstop violence and obscenity, but somehow not offensive! And I love movies with great dancing: Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Carlos Saura’s flamenco Carmen.

QQ:What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?

MDR: There’s a theme here: big, emotional, layered stuff appeals to me. I love arena rock albums like Van Halen’s 5150 and Def Leppard’s Hysteria. To me, those have the same fist-in-the-air power that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies have. And I love every other Sting album. Cerebral and beautiful–gotta love a guy who can work curriculum vitae into a pop song. And no, I don’t listen to music as I write. I have to have quiet for that.

QQ: Many writers are hardly overnight-success stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?

MDR: Well, my story is that thirty-one agents turned The Sparrow down before Jane Dystel finally decided to take me on as a client. I don’t know if that’s inspirational or depressing, but it’s true.

QQ:What was the book that most influenced your life or your ca­reer as a writer–and why?

MDR: Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935) by T. E. Lawrence. I saw the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia when it first came out in 1962. I was twelve then, and ripe for hero worship, and ready to imag­ine a larger world than Lombard, Illinois. I found a musty old copy of Seven Pillars, and to this day I remain fascinated by the book and the man who wrote it. I can name a number of direct ef­fects of reading the book. Initially, I became interested in archaeology because of Lawrence’s early years, and that led me to anthropology, which sustained my interest through three degrees and years of profes­sional work. I keep my hand in by editing the professional papers of friends in the field. Lawrence taught me that speaking more than one language opens doors to experiences you’d miss if you speak only English. Over the years, I’ve studied Spanish, Russian, French, and Croatian formally, with less studious stabs at Latin, Hebrew, Italian, and Ger­man. Each one has led me places I’d never have gone otherwise. Lawrence taught me that how you write is as important as what you have to tell about. Choice of word, rhythm, detail, editing, and overall structure make Seven Pillars literature, not just a mili­tary history or personal memoir. There are echoes of Lawrence’s experience in Deraa in my first novel, echoes of his war guilt in my third. I learned from Seven Pil­lars that intentions are irrelevant and regrets are useless: it doesn’t matter what you thought would happen, or that you meant no harm. Unintended consequences of good intentions is a theme I return to. I also caught the colon habit from reading his work: quod erat demonstrandum.

QQ:What are you working on now?

MDR: Dreamers of the Day is a novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. After the first World War, a handful of British and French diplomats got together in a nice hotel for a few days, took some fun camel rides out to see the pyramids and get their pic­tures taken, gossiped, flirted, argued–oh, yes, and invented the modern Middle East. I’ll come full circle with this one: T. E. Lawrence will actually be a character in the story, along with Lady Gertrude Bell, Win­ston Churchill, Chaim Weitzman, and Prince Feisal of the Hashemite royal family.

QQ: If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be–and why?

MDR: I would love to give a leg up to a young poet named Gary ten the libretto for an opera based on The Sparrow by the Puerto Rican composer Raymond Torres-Santos. And Gary will be collaborating on a project with me soon.

QQ:What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?

MDR: Don’t rely on other writers to critique your work. Find passionate readers who know what they like and why. Ask them to read your drafts, and tell you what works and what doesn’t, where they didn’t buy a motive or believe in a character, when the dialog was clunky, or the description hackneyed. It’s thrilling to be part of someone else’s creative process, and good readers can be better than another writer for diagnosis and even prescription. I rely heavily on a team of friends who can criticize my work without breaking my heart or discouraging me, and I give them a lot of the credit for the success of my own novels.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Karen R. (see profile) 05/06/22

by barb e. (see profile) 09/22/18

Not all our book club were able to finish this book. It was intense. So many delicious descriptive passages, surrounded by complex human journeys, monsters and angels. Anthropological, scientific and... (read more)

  "Needs a Good Edit"by Judith B. (see profile) 08/10/13

I knew I was in trouble when I opened the book to find a two-page List of Characters. I would prefer to have the characters developed on page, not in a list. A good edit would have improved my relationship... (read more)

  "Interesting Aspect of WWII"by Kris C. (see profile) 06/20/13

This is a novel with a different part of WWII that you generally don't hear about. I found the characters engaging and the book enjoyable.

  "The Thread Of Grace"by Kathryn S. (see profile) 11/11/10

Most of the group found the beginning chapters tedious and had to push through to get deeper into the story. and some members found the characters not as well deveoped as they would prefer. However, the... (read more)

  "the end ruined it"by Avid R. (see profile) 06/05/10

First of all, you must read her sci fi books. Our club was very hesitant as that's not usually our thing, but we all loved them - The Sparrow and Children of God. We were really looking forward to this... (read more)

  "Thread of Grace"by Susan S. (see profile) 04/03/10

  "Not an easy read but very informative"by Donna N. (see profile) 11/19/09

Not all of our members finished the book due to its complexity, mainly because of the various names used by the book's characters. Those that did finish thought the book was extremely interesting and... (read more)

  "A Thread Of Grace"by Elaine M. (see profile) 10/14/09

  "Found it hard to stay with this book"by Janet S. (see profile) 02/27/09

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