Every morning she brushes her hair 100 times, brushes her teeth with 160 strokes of her toothbrush. She can remember the day she started to count, how she used numbers to organise her adolescence, her career, even the men she went out with.
But something has gone wrong. Grace used to be a teacher, but now she is living on sickness benefits; as the parent of one of her students put it, ‘she’s mad’. Her father is dead, her mother a mystery to her, her sister sympathetic but not finally able to understand.
Only her niece Hilly can connect with her. And Grace can only connect with Nikola—Nikola Tesla, the turn-of-the-century inventor whose portrait sits on her bedside table and who rescues her in her dreams. Then one day all the tables at the café are full. As she hesitates in the doorway a stranger invites her to sit with him.
The book has three distinct parts, although they are not evenly spaced. There is Grace, Grace in treatment and Grace after treatment. The first part is the longest and it was the second and third parts I read last night.
The Grace of Part 1 lives alone. She has only limited interaction with anyone else. She lives her life in a strict routine. She counts everything. She is particularly fond of 10. When she buys eggs, she hides 2 of them in the spice section and tells the cashier she has already checked them because she wants 10 eggs, not 12. She buys 100 beans when she goes shopping and eats 10 beans every night with her dinner of chicken and other vegetables.
After a breakdown some 2 years earlier, she has been unable to work (she is a teacher) and lives frugally on a disability pension.
Grace’s philosophy on life can be summed up thus.
Counting is what defines us. Listen, Seamus… the only thing that gives our lives meaning is the knowledge that eventually we will all die. All of us. That’s what makes each minute important. Without the ability to count our days, our hours, our loved ones… there’s no meaning. Our lives would have no meaning. Without counting, our lives are unexamined. Not valued. Not precious. This consciousness, this ability to rejoice when we gain something and grieve when we lose something – this is what separates us from other animals. Counting, adding, measuring, timing. It’s what makes us human.”
Even so, she has a secret cynicism. A belief that most people are merely ants, who live pointless lives. A kind of defensive superiority that her life was not pointless, that she was not an ant. At times, it made her difficult to like. Which I actually liked about the book because Grace is more than just a person with OCD. She is complex and not always nice, like all of us.
Each morning, at the same time, Grace walks to a local cafe where she sits at the first table on the left, moving in a clockwise direction until there is table available. She orders a cappuccino and a slice of orange cake with poppy seeds on the icing. She counts the poppy seeds and the number of seeds on her cake is the number of bites she must take to eat it. It is easy when there at 20-30 seeds, much harder when there are 93.
On Sunday at 8pm her mother telephones her and at 8.20 pm her sister Jill calls. Everything is in a strict routine and everything is counted.
What is also shown in heartwrenching clarity is how Grace feels when things are out of order, what is at risk when she breaks routine.
This is the world we live in; it’s cruel, endlessly cruel and unstable and accidents are everywhere and we can never escape them….
…Is my mother all right? I suddenly know that she is not all right, she is dying, right now, lying on the bathroom floor with her stick arms outstretched, clawing, and she is calling my name to come and help her die. She dropped her hair dryer in the bath then reached in to get it; a piece of bread was stuck in the toaster and she levered it out with a knife…
…Or may it’s Jill. Maybe I’m feeling Jill’s death. She is younger than I am so it would be some kind of fall; peopled die all the time in falls, crack their heads open. Or a car smash… and she’s crushed. I know she is. Her body is broken and her face is mauled.
With Jill gone there is so much missing…
All the games will die with her…
I have destroyed everything; held it in my hand and crushed it and there is no recovering from this, none, none none none none none.
When Grace meets Seamus he upsets her world. But he is interesting and funny and hot and it’s been a long time since she’s had sex. Although it is anxiety inducing to break routine, she thinks she can do it. She thinks she can try.
A lot of people think that flirting’s about sex. Well, flirting’s about surprise, and surprise is about sex. If someone can be unexpected using words imagine how thrilling they could be using their mouth. Or their tongue. Or their teeth.
The Grace who talks with Seamus is articulate, intelligent, sassy and sharp. She didn’t fit well with my picture of her. I knew, as a reader, just how wounded Grace is and to see her trading quips and flirting with a man and coming across as sharp and witty was a little jarring. Given she had had so little interaction with people for a couple of years, I wondered how she could cover so well, even if only for short periods. They fell into bed very quickly. It seemed a strange thing for someone so addicted to routine to do. But I suppose it had to happen somehow and I’m not sure slow would have worked any better, frankly.
Seamus asks Grace directly about the counting early on in their relationship and he witnesses her compulsion and how it limits her. When they are due to go to see Grace’s niece in a school recital, the change to her routine brings about panic.
I will have to explain it to him. I’m busy and I can’t come. This has to be done; I simply can’t live in a world if I don’t know its dimensions. Each breath makes my chest ache and the pain radiates down my arm and across my back. I’ll explain to him that, although I’ve obviously counted everything before, the word ‘digital’ comes from the fingers. It’s incomplete unless I count with my fingers. That’s all there is to it. I open the door.
…Gently he moves me out of the way and comes inside. Every plate and cup and sponge and vegetable peeler from every kitchen cupboard is piled on the benchtops and on the floor. Two fry pans are balancing on the three saucepans and the five little nested plastic cup measures have rolled into the hallway. One salad bowl hold the 10 knives, the other the 10 forks. The 10 spoons are in the strainer. The wine glasses, 2 sizes, 10 each, are on the kitchen counter, together with 9 champagne flutes. The remaining champagne flute is on the scale, because while I’m counting I’m also checking what everything weighs. Might save time later. Every door is open, the label on the inside of each door clearly visible. Next to each label I’ve attached a piece of string tied to a pen with sticky tape, like they do at at the bank. (I buy my pens in boxes of 100.) So if I take a plate out to make a sandwich for lunch, I can easily adjust the total number of plates down. And when I replace it after it’s been washed I can easily adjust the total number of plates up.
It looks worse than it is.
The desperation, the penance Grace needs to serve for daring to step out of routine, are so cleverly and wrenchingly portrayed here. So well, that I couldn’t see a way out.
After the recital (which she does manage to attend), at Seamus’ suggestion, she seeks treatment.
The story is told from Grace’s first person POV. I really wanted her to be an unreliable narrator because otherwise I am left with that there really are psychiatrists and behavioural therapists so lacking in compassion and empathy out there treating OCD patients. Placing Grace in the therapy group with the “other compulsives”, the twee “stairway to health”, the lack of any actual therapy, just medications and adjustments to it by the psychiatrist. Please tell me treating providers aren’t really like that? Sadly, I expect that while the two in the book were slightly caricatured, there really are ones like that out there. It took considerable drive and courage for Grace to even attend so I can’t really see her shopping around until she found a psychiatrist with whom she was comfortable. But I wish she had done.
The other problem with the first person POV was that Seamus was largely unknown. In fact, until right near the end when they are talking about gratitude, guilt and pretense, I wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t just some weirdo who wanted a convenient body around and didn’t care about the significant side effects of the medication she was talking and how that fundamentally changed who Grace was. (Although he wasn’t getting much at the time, I still wondered).
The description of “Brain One” and “Brain Two”, one in charge of her mental faculties and the other in charge of her physical body, once she started medication was wonderful. The description was wonderful. But Grace’s reality wasn’t. I could see her fading into the the background, into nothing; life going on around her but her not really participating in or enjoying it. What, I wondered, was the advantage to her with this medication? Was her life objectively any better? It seemed to me that Seamus had become a caretaker rather than a lover
As a reader, I felt more despair. How on earth could there be a happy ending here? The book was four fifths done and Grace was not Grace anymore!
The shortest section of the book was the third part – after treatment. I would have liked this to be longer, particularly right at the end, so I could have been more satisfied in Grace’s well being. Grace still counts. She always will, but, it seems, she manages better now. I’m not confident she will be able to sustain it.
I can’t say I was overjoyed by the ending. I would have liked to have seen Grace get some supportive therapy from a counsellor, possibly without any medication (although I’m not a doctor so what do I know?). I think Grace did have a breakthrough when she told Seamus what had happened (finally) to trigger her counting. (I’m no expert, but I suspect for many, there is no one traumatic event which can be easily identified, as was the case for Grace). And, by the end, she seemed to be much more functional but I still would have liked for her to be having some ongoing, appropriate and compassionate, therapeutic support.
Also, I was curious about how the family reacted after the “accident”. I’m not sure it was necessary in the book – probably the imagining of it was sufficiently awful.
There is a happy ending and Grace herself ends the book better off that when it starts, even leaving aside Seamus, but the book isn’t joyful. I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading it. I’m glad I read it, I think, but even as it gave me much to ponder, it also left me saddened and somewhat drained.
It is probably because of this that I found the book difficult to read and difficult to grade. I did not enjoy it. I am fairly sure I’m glad I read it. In the end, I decided that Seamus was good for Grace and would stick, that he loved her for who she was, counting and all. But I worried that he took over sometimes, that he might become her keeper rather than her partner. I was glad that Grace found a way she could be both herself and have more in her life but I wasn’t sure she could sustain it. I thought the reference to football at the end was too flippant but I was a bit raw by then so maybe that’s on me. I’m still tussling with myself over the grade. The book was well written and it struck a chord. So, I’ll go with this.