Finding the Grain by Wynn Malone is a gem of a book. While it features a romantic relationship that takes up a huge part of the main character’s life and mind, it’s actually more like an episodic coming of age story.
Augusta “Blue” Riley is about to start college, having recently lost her parents in a tornado. Her aunt Julie talks her into going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to be closer to her, promising to support Blue if she wants move back to Alabama for veterinary school. Blue doesn’t know anyone at her new city and new school, but quickly falls for a sorority girl, Grace Lancaster. Because it’s the early 80’s and Grace is from a wealthy family, they have to hide their relationship, even as a deep love grows between them.
Blue doesn’t see it coming when Grace breaks up with her, and her devastation leads her to a summer job in Kentucky. Instead of going back to school in the fall, she hits the road again, starting a pattern that continues for twenty years. Despite moving all over the country, having regular relationships with women and irregular jobs, she never forgets Grace. It’s only when she ends up in Mississippi with Preacher Rowe and his wife, Mary, that Blue stops running and finds herself in specialty woodworking. After she goes home to North Carolina and sets up a small shop, Grace shows up unannounced, forcing Blue to truly decide what she wants for herself.
Finding the Grain is told in the first person from Blue’s perspective, so we not only get to know her best, but we see everyone else through her eyes. When we first meet her, she’s steeped in grief, fighting with Julie because she doesn’t want to move to North Carolina. We see the edges of that grief soften as she falls in love with Grace, and then watch it form anew when Grace walks away. I can’t say I related to Blue because her life was so different from mine, but she’s such a flawed and compelling character that I found myself invested in her story every step of the way. Blue makes bad decisions, often leading to regret, but it’s through her travels and relationships that she finally figures out who she is and what she truly needs.
It would be easy to write Grace off as shallow or dislike her for breaking Blue’s heart, but she has a depth that I appreciated. She loved Blue but was trapped by her parents’ expectations, never feeling like she had any choice about her future. She wears social niceties like a suit of armour, yet still finds ways to quietly support LGBT people and causes without any negative impact to her husband’s political career. She grows at least as much as Blue in the last section of the book, and my heart may have both cheered and had a happy sigh about her in the epilogue.
There’s a huge cast of side characters and some of them are real standouts. Julie loves Blue and does her best to care for her both emotionally and financially, but her strong opinions about how Blue should live her life makes for a complicated, realistic relationship. I also loved Preacher Rowe and Mary, who helped Blue really take stock of who she is, what she wants out of life, and who she’s going to be. They’re a true example of what Christian love should look like, accepting and supporting Blue regardless of her sexuality or what her path in life has been.
The Writing Style
It may seem like I’ve given away a lot of spoilers, but the bulk of the plot is already on the back of the book. That’s okay, though, because Finding the Grain isn’t about the major plot points, it’s about the journey Blue takes to find herself, independent of Grace. It’s sort of a coming of age story, even though it takes Blue until she’s in her forties. The episodic, first person storytelling is also excellent, reminding me of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I’ve seen many call Finding the Grain a romance novel, but it’s more than that. Yes, there is a romance between Blue and Grace, but the truest relationship in the story is between Blue and herself as she finally learns what she needs and how to take care of herself. I won’t tell you how long I spent trying to decide if it’s also a contemporary picaresque, but come talk to me on Twitter if you have opinions about that.
The author does some subtle, interesting metaphor work with Blue’s woodworking. I don’t want to say too much about that because, really, it’s so beautifully done that you just need to experience it.
The narration by Amber Benson (yes, the Amber Benson who played Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is outstanding and the perfect accompaniment to Wynn Malone’s beautiful storytelling. I cannot recommend the audio version enough because she truly acts out all of the characters and her regional accents were phenomenal. You might find audio book performances as good as this, but I dare you to find one that’s better.
Excellent writing, an engaging story, Amber Benson’s superb narration, and the way it felt like I joined Blue for her journey.
I want more books by Wynn Malone, but this is the only one!
Finding the Grain by Wynn Malone is a masterful book. I highly recommend it, especially the audio version.
Excerpt from Finding the Grain by Wynn Malone
The traffic light turned, and I shifted to first. Grace said, pensively, “I remember a girl who went through rush with me, my freshman year. Her name was Missy, and she wanted to be a Delta Pi so bad. It crushed her when she didn’t make it—really crushed her. I thought about her for weeks after rush. It doesn’t seem fair that I got in and she didn’t. I would have switched places with her in a heartbeat if my Mom hadn’t insisted on me pledging Delta Pi.”
“Is your mom the only reason you went out for rush?”
“I don’t know.” Grace turned to me and shrugged. “I guess our sorority does some really good things for charity, and it’s a good way to meet people and stay in touch after graduation. I think it’s important to bond with people who share the same values, too. Don’t you?”
I stared ahead and shifted to third. “Yeah, I suppose. But didn’t we do that this weekend? I don’t think joining a beauty club is necessary to share values,” I said, attitude piercing my voice.
Grace’s eyes narrowed on me. “What’s up with you tonight? A sorority is not a beauty club.”
“Ha!” I cut her a glance. “C’mon, Grace, you can’t seriously tell me looks have absolutely nothing to do with getting into a sorority.”
Grace turned and stared out the window. “I can’t tell you anything,” she said softly.
I had not expected the resignation in her voice. I wanted defiance, a reason to argue, an opening to ask why she was not the same woman under the lights of campus that I had seen reflected in the light of our campfire. Only an ass would push her now. I drove through the next traffic light, thankful it was green.
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781612940458
- Publisher: Bywater Books
- Audio book publisher: Audible Studios
- Narrated by: Amber Benson
Wynn Malone Online
Note: I received a free review copy of Finding the Grain by Wynn Malone for review. No money was exchanged for this review. I will always review books as honestly as possible and on occasion I refuse to review books.