I have SO much to say about this book. I genuinely hope you stay with me through to the end of my review … but if you’re in a hurry, here’s my six-word summary: you need to read this book. Now. It’s a stunner; it seeks out every emotion within your soul and awakens each of them in turn, sometimes gently, sometimes with calculated cruelty, but always with such precision that you’ll be talking about it for a long time afterwards. I’m not alone in my adoration of this book … it’s been snapped up by an American screenwriter just last week, and we all know we love to read the book before we watch it’s transformation to the big screen.
historical fiction | romance | theatre | WWII
back cover blurb
Author – Wendy Waters | Published by – Amazon in October 2019 | Pages – 442 (paperback)
From the author of ‘Catch the Moon, Mary‘ comes this sweeping epic drama spanning seven decades. Set against a backdrop of war in 30s Europe, Grace Fieldergill, a starry-eyed young actress from Devon moves to London to pursue her dream of becoming a star. The lovable boarders of Wyncote House, a ladies-only establishment, take her under their collective wing and share her triumph when she is accepted into the brilliant young John Gielgud’s Company as Peggy Ashcroft’s understudy. When Peggy misses a show one night Grace gets her chance. Watching her performance that evening are two people who will change her life forever, London’s most famous actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and a man whose love she never thought she could win.
Fields of Grace is an abundant story which is brimming with such richly vivid detail that my review isn’t a short one. I genuinely hope you stick with it though as this is an incredibly beautiful book and I’m hoping to write something here that does justice to it. As I always promise, this is a spoiler-free review … so whilst there looks to be a lot of details these really are just the bare bones of the story which I hope dangle enough temptation to compel you to get your hands on a copy too.
Fields of Grace is a searingly beautiful love letter to the performing arts. It’s a story about every kind of love silhouetted against the evils of persecution and envy. Like love, it’ll sweep you off your feet, carrying you from the flirtatious bright lights of 1930s London, to the grand romance of Paris, before mercilessly setting you down in the hostile streets of Hitler’s Berlin.
The book gets off to a haunting start with the recounting of an ancient Devonian tale about the amberglow mist. As I was reading, a tremendous thunderstorm was crashing and brooding outside my own window, lending this prologue a particularly moody foreboding. If you usually dodge the foreword of a book, I recommend you don’t on this occasion … it sheds light on Grace’s family history, her mother’s pagan roots, and explains why Grace occasionally uses the ancient Druid language to evoke memories and resolve emotions.
Grace is the story’s leading lady, and its main narrator. We first meet her in Sydney in the autumn of 2009; the winter of her life. An ethereal tawny fog has settled over the city, and its portentous arrival lets Grace know that this will be her last earthbound day; the day when she can finally set herself free from the secrets of her past, and heal old wounds. “Time has a way of sorting out most things, but I have no more time, so today I will unlock the trunk and pass John’s legacy on to Sam [Grace’s granddaughter], and tell my son the truth about his father. Then the amberglow may claim my soul.”
Locked for over seventy-four years, the trunk holds little of monetary value but its contents are the precious mementoes of an unparalleled life. A faded program from a production of Hamlet staged in Berlin in 1936 still holds the bloom of a lilac rose frozen in time between the pages. A scroll of handwritten notes remains tied with a lilac ribbon. The intoxicating scent of fresh roses. With the tenderest of prompts the scenery changes, and Grace is recounting her breathtaking story of theatre, friends, love and war…
When we next meet Grace she’s 22-years old, and it’s 1934. She’s left her childhood home on a Devonshire dairy farm and followed her lifelong calling to the lights and opportunity of London’s theatreland. Bit by bit we’re invited into Grace’s circle of friends, sipping illicit martinis with her vivacious and provocative best friend Georgina, persevering through soul-destroying acting classes, and engaging in lively chatter with her housemates every evening … conversations peppered with the quips, barbs and humour of familial warmth.
Whilst Grace is the book’s leading lady, Georgina is undoubtedly her stage-lighting. For it’s Georgina who encourages Grace to audition to be Peggy Ashcroft’s understudy for the role of Ophelia in a forthcoming production of Hamlet … providing the spark that ignites Grace’s career. Suddenly Grace’s circle of friends and acquaintances includes icons of the London theatre scene. Household names that carry immense kudos today have been woven into the story to dazzling effect: [Sir] John Gielgud, [Dame] Peggy Ashcroft, [Sir] Noël Coward, Ivor Novello, Laurence Olivier, [Sir] Alec Guinness, and Hugh Beaumont all play their parts … even Wallace Simpson, Vivien Leigh, and Virginia Woolf have roles.
One fateful evening Peggy Ashcroft is unable to perform, projecting Grace’s star into its ascendancy. As the curtain comes down after her first lead in Ophelia’s costume, Grace is sought out by London’s leading theatrical agent, the renowned John Hopkins-Reimer, setting in motion a chain of events that will change Grace’s life irrevocably. Their first meeting is prickly, but nonetheless, there’s a palpable attraction between them; one which quickly blooms into a close friendship and then – to the astonishment of their circle of friends – blossoms into love.
True to his word, John makes Grace a household name and a darling of the London theatre scene. He’s a man of ideas and ambition whose passion is to launch a ground-breaking theatre project. However, John can be ruthless in the pursuit of his goals. He needs money to finance this project – money that Dashiell Tanner has by the bucket – so he casts the talentless Dashiell as Hamlet, harnessing his vanity in order to get to his money.
In June 1936 John and Grace set sail for France, taking their production of Hamlet on a European tour to raise more funds. They’re travelling with a handful of fellow actors, as well as their good friends Harry Andrews, and the ill-fated Dashiell. Whilst war has not been declared at this time, the dark stain of Hitler’s cruelty is already spreading insidiously throughout western Europe. Grace is particularly uneasy about the Berlin tour dates, but John is immovable in his conviction that the city will be safe whilst the eyes of the world are on them for the Berlin Olympics. His desire to bring his new theatre to fruition is clouding his judgement, and he’s blind to the resentment and envy simmering beneath the surface of the group.
The production tours Calais and Lille to great acclaim, before making their much-anticipated arrival in Paris. Like the book’s characters, it’s impossible not to be entranced with this iconic city … even if you’ve never been. Written with such vivid abundance, every sight, sound, scent and sensation positively pop out of the pages. In one scene, Grace and John visit La Closerie des Lilas and are seated at literature’s most famous café table … the table Hemingway used to write at. It was written with such clarity, I could easily have been eavesdropping from the next table.
But what a difference a few days make. As the production arrives in Berlin the group attracts the unwelcome attention of the SS … the rash behaviour of the usually equable Harry first ruffles feathers, and then the alcohol-fuelled bitterness of Dashiell delivers the lethal blow. The contrast in atmosphere from their days in Paris couldn’t be more profound, with the author’s tone and intensity bringing a chilling savagery to these chapters. Not since I read the diary of Anne Frank as a teenager have I felt the threatening presence of menace rise from the pages of a book in such a way.
A shell-shocked and depleted group make their escape back to Britain, and at the first opportunity Grace heads back home to the comforting safety of home in Devon. And here she stays, in the nurturing love of her parents, for the months it takes her to feel ready to move forward. Despite these being the lowest days of her life, they’re punctuated by moments of tender humour that you can’t fail to laugh along with.
When the time comes for her to make her next move, it’s a big one. One that sees Grace boarding the RMS Aquitania as a married woman and a new mother. Every day of the month-long crossing to Australia I felt like my heart was going to burst with sorrow and injustice as Grace leaves behind her family and dearest friends to pursue a new life … a life she describes as a slow death. Yet the author manages to gently temper my emotions with glimpses of tenderness and compassion. It’s extremely clever writing that manages to create a character who you will heartily despise, and yet somehow feel a degree of pity for.
I’ll not say any more about Grace’s back story, but in her own words, “Time has a way of sorting out most things. As the book draws to a close the author brings us gently back to 2009 and we find ourselves at Grace’s bedside, her emerald-eyed granddaughter Sam at her side, and her beloved John, waiting as she shrugs off her earthly bonds. Without doubt, this part of the book is written with extraordinary intimacy and tenderness … but it felt a little short. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t want to be reading about a protracted death but, after the expansiveness of Grace’s earlier life, this final act felt like it craved just a little more generosity.
You’ve probably got the gist by now that I’ve absolutely adored this book. This review has taken me three days to write … I wanted to capture enough of the story that you feel compelled to snap up a copy of your own but without the horror of spoilers or slippage into the realms of TMI. Such is the breadth of the book that this is one of the longest reviews I’ve written, yet I’m still astonished at how SO much story has been distilled into just 442 pages. It’s a tardis of a book!
Fields of Grace deals delicately with subjects and attitudes that can be quite difficult to stomach. For example, there are several conversations where key (and otherwise likeable) characters express unpalatable opinions of Hitler … this isn’t the author being deliberately provocative, she’s merely reflecting some genuinely held, albeit controversial beliefs that prevailed before the full horrors of Nazism became apparent. Likewise, the subject of gay relationships is a significant aspect of the story … and with the majority of the book being set in the 1930s, you’ll find yourself facing the lamentable injustices of this period. Lastly, whilst women do have the vote the story is set in an era that’s still hugely conservative, with the options facing women – especially single women with children – heartbreakingly limited.
Overall, this is a breathtaking story about every kind of love: the uplifting love of friends, the anchoring love of family, the romantic love of partners. It’s about true love, passionate love, unrequited love, forbidden love, illicit love, failed love, infatuation and forgiveness.
The incredibly vivid and honest characters are impossible to dislike, and the rich smokiness of the 1930s and 40s scenes all combine to create an atmospheric richness that makes this a book to savour. You need to read only a few chapters in one sitting and then go and do something peaceful – a hot bath, a walk in the country, sit in the garden – just to allow your mind the luxury of catching up with your heart to fully absorb what you’ve just read; to turn it slowly around and admire it from every angle.
The stunning cover of Fields of Grace was painted by a dear friend of the author’s. On the day I started to read this book I learned that the artist, @DigiluxEU, sadly lost his battle with cancer in June this year. Without a shadow of a doubt, he created an utterly captivating cover image here, and it feels appropriate to draw attention to his work. Once you read the book, you’ll learn the significance of the rose, the butterfly, and the striking colour palette.
about Wendy Waters
Wendy Waters is an award-winning author, composer, lyricist and librettist. Born in Australia, she grew up in Sydney, lived in the USA for six years and now divides her time between London, Sydney and Paris. In 2011 Waters volunteered to work with OASIS Salvation Army Crisis Centre in Sydney, helping musically gifted young people streamline their talent and it was there that she first conceived of the idea of a guardian angel rescuing a troubled or abused child as many of the young people at Oasis spoke of guardian angels coming to their rescue at times of danger. Turning the angel into the one in need of rescue was the twist that gave Catch the Moon, Mary its leverage.
Waters has also written three musicals: ‘Fred’, ‘Alexander’ and ‘The Last Tale’ (with composer Shanon Whitelock).
Waters’ debut novel, Catch the Moon, Mary was published in the UK in 2015 and has been adapted by Waters into both a stage play and a screenplay. The play and Fred had staged readings at Tristan Bates Theatre in 2017 with graduate students from Amanda Redman’s ATS Drama School.
Music is a constant theme in Waters’ work and it still plays a major role in her latest novel, Fields of Grace.