GRACE ALONE. By Ruth E. Meyer. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017. 352 pages. $12.99.
What happens when a the 42-year-old bachelor principal of a Lutheran grade school moves to town and falls for a divorced, non-church-going, single mother of four? That’s the premise of Ruth E. Meyer’s debut novel Grace Alone.
Grace Alone is a true romance novel. That is, it isn’t centered on inflamed passion, smutty scenes, or lascivious gestures. The budding relationship between Grace Williams (the main character) and David Neunaber (the principal) is a romance that’s built on patience and kindness, and an attitude that believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. When Grace or David are arrogant, rude, resentful, or insist on their own way, they find themselves met with the undeserved gift of forgiveness.
The story itself is filled with plenty of twists and turns, many of which forced me to double back just to make sure I was reading the story correctly and left me wondering where the author was going to go next. As someone who doesn’t typically read this kind of literature (i.e., romance novels), the twists and turns were a pleasant accent that made turning the pages fun.
Though the novel doesn’t take itself too seriously, it isn’t lacking in serious subject matter. These serious subjects provide much of the conflict and drama in the story. For example, David Neunaber must wrestle with the fact that he’s smitten with a woman who doesn’t share his faith. How should he share that faith with her and how far can this relationship go if she never comes to share that faith? Like any given Christian, David is at times too weak and at other times too pushy and overbearing.
Grace, on the other hand, struggles with the stigma of being a single mom and all the challenges that accompany trying to be a parent to four children whose ages range from four to fifteen. She has an unflattering and critical view of the church, partly due to her own baggage and partly due to experiences with churches who bungled the proper application of Law and Gospel earlier in her life.
As Grace encounters more grace through her experiences with David, she is forced to evaluate the way she handles other relationships, such as a bitter disagreement with a disobedient son or daughter, the betrayal of her mother who has been hiding her own dark secrets, and the responsibilities she may or may not have toward her ex-husband Bob.
To help navigate the treacherous waters of any relationship Pastor Lixon makes the occasional appearance as the perfectly-timed delivery man of God’s Word and God’s grace. While I appreciate the respect Ruth Meyer grants to the character Pastor Lixon, I thought his portrayal was a bit idealistic. For a novel that flourishes in describing the messy relationships and personal failures of others, Pastor Lixon came across as too perfect. While he confesses his own sinful past, he never actually fails any character in the novel in any way. With that said, the scenes depicting his pastoral care to troubled consciences were appropriately Christocentric and entirely believable…though I wish the fruit that such conversations bore in the novel would blossom in my own ministry.
It is an odd thing to read novels that reference the Lutheran Service Book and/or its contents, whether it is Katie Schuermann’s Anthems of Zion trilogy or Heather Kaufmann’s The Story People, or Lisa Clark’s The Messengers dystopia. When I encounter these hymns or liturgical references in these novels they often feel more forced rather than a naturally occurring part of the story. Grace Alone was no different in that regard. I say this humbly as a pastor who loves Lutheran hymnody and liturgy, and champions for it at all times.
Grace Alone is a book that is easy and quick to read. It absolutely lives up to the double-meaning of its title, and it rightfully belongs on the shelf of many a casual reader and any church with a church-library.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.