No one speaks of the grace year. It’s forbidden.
Girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth, of a girl on the edge of womanhood. That’s why they’re banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.
Sixteen-year-old Tierney James dreams of a better life — a society that doesn’t pit friend against friend or woman against woman, but as her own grace year draws near, she quickly realizes that it’s not just the brutal elements they must fear. It’s not even the poachers in the woods, men who are waiting for their chance to grab one of the girls in order to make their fortune on the black market. Their greatest threat may very well be each other.
With sharp prose and gritty realism, The Grace Year examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they eventually become, and the difficult decisions they make in-between.
Representation: (click to show)
WLW secondary character, minor F/F relationship
Content warnings: (click to show)
misogynistic patriarchal society, major character death(s), body mutilation (including scalping, being skinned alive, branding), blood, slut-shaming, bullying, on-page suicide by drowning, mind-altering substances, withdrawal, implied sexual content, teenage pregnancy, on-page childbirth
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I received a review copy of this book through Netgalley; all opinions are my own and honest.
You might know that it’s rare for me to give out 5-star ratings. I’ve also become a lot pickier about which reviews get cross-posted to my blog, since it can be such a struggle to articulate exactly why or how a book is so fantastic that I want to shove copies at everyone I know. So that should give you an idea of just how much I wanted to make sure this one was on everyone’s radar.
While it doesn’t seem right to say that I enjoyed this book — it’s quite brutal in a lot of ways; please check the content warnings above and practice self-care as needed while reading, if you so choose — The Grace Year has definitely earned a place on the list of 2019 reads that will stay with me for a long, long time. (And considering I’m not generally a fan of thrillers or dystopian novels, it’s even more impressive how strongly this one resonated with me.)
In a nutshell, this book is everything I didn’t even know I was hoping for when I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time. But it’s almost a disservice to compare the two, although both have strong feminist themes and a patriarchal dystopian setting. The Grace Year is an entity unto itself, utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read.
I don’t want to talk too much about the plot or motifs because I think they’re most powerful if each reader discovers and interprets them on their own … and there’s quite a lot to explore, although the plot is deceptively simple. (Which is not to say it’s straightforward; certain scenes are tinged with delirium and confusion, adding to the atmosphere.) It’s suspenseful, with social commentary that pulls no punches, and incredible symbolism. The pacing is fantastic — keeping you guessing, hoping, praying. Just when you think you’ve understood what’s going on, the rug is yanked out from under your feet again.
Balancing believable flaws with likability is tricky, especially in a teenage-girl protagonist, yet Liggett manages to pull it off. Tierney is far from perfect, but she has such a good heart despite everything life throws at her. And really, just about all the characters have hidden depths — as in real life, people are messy and complex, existing all along the spectrum from good to wicked. And they just might surprise you, for better or worse.
The Grace Year is so enthralling that I read it in two sittings: absolutely could not put it down, and barely paused to take notes. Seriously, this is a masterpiece of a novel, tempering pragmatism and harsh reality with empathy and hope for the future of society, of humanity.