THE SAVING GRACES

By Patricia Gaffney

HarperCollins. 394 pp. $24

Reviewed by Patricia Elam

I am a notoriously impatient reader. Translation: Had I not been assigned this book to review, I would have put it down after the first 50 pages. So to those of you with similar reading habits, I urge you to be patient. The initial going is slow, but if you hang in there with Patricia Gaffney's first non-romance novel, the rewards are bountiful. The Saving Graces, set in Washington, D.C., begins as a slightly interesting adagio but accelerates to a compelling presto. While the book may not be considered high-brow literary writing, it's not mere "beach reading" either. If categorization is required, I suppose it fits comfortably under the heading "enlightened commercial fiction," a phrase I recently heard an editor use.

The book's title refers to the four female protagonists who have been meeting bimonthly, for almost 10 years, at one another's houses, to drink, dine and discuss their lives (no political issues or organized topics, thank you). They named themselves after rescuing an injured dog they symbolically called "Grace." The chapters alternate, Waiting to Exhale-style, among the voices of the four women. Emma is often brash, cynical (mostly about men and new-age philosophy) and has never married. She is a wannabe novelist who has a day job as a newspaper journalist. In that capacity she interviews and develops a forbidden crush on a married ex-patent attorney turned visual artist. Once she determines not to have an affair with this man, they find themselves awkwardly thrown together in innocent yet tempting circumstances. Emma becomes unsure whether she can trust all of the Graces with her illicit longings, but, most troubling of all, she is uncertain whether she can even trust herself.

Lee, sensible and organized, is considered to be the one who started the group. Although she hails from a family of money and professional degrees, she married the plumber who unclogged her toilet. They are happy and passionate until they discover their inability to conceive, which threatens to undo Lee's mental stability as well as the marriage.

Rudy is the physically beautiful one who grew up in a severely dysfunctional family. To keep those bad memories at bay, she sees a therapist regularly and takes medication but is unable to figure out what to do with her life. Married to a man who wants to control rather than love her, she is confused about her loyalties when asked to choose between him and the Graces.

And lastly, there's Isabel, older, gentler and wiser than the others, but with more than her share of disappointments. Divorced from her philandering husband, she is also estranged from her only son, and if that weren't enough, she is battling cancer as well. But her spirit is strong, and as she struggles with her destiny, she inspires the others to do their best. The medical details of her situation are particularly gripping and truthfully rendered.

The women irritate one another, embrace one another, tackle their differences, suffer in silence, support and express their love for each other -- as in real life. The voices and sentiments of each of them are distinct and well-drawn, and the narrative is, at times, breathtaking. In one of Isabel's chapters she talks about "a morbid game I catch myself playing at odd times. Wrinkled old ladies, children, young men, pretty girls . . . old men -- to each of them as they strode or hobbled or ambled past me, I thought, You're dying. You're dying, and you're dying . . . I didn't do this for comfort, certainly. Perhaps it was a way to persuade myself of the unthinkable, the outlandish -- that no one gets out alive. . . . Here I am in the world, right now, this minute. I never was before, never will be again. I simply exist and it's glorious. An honor and a privilege. A marvel beyond belief."

On the down note, the women resort to drinking an awful lot. I kept hoping one of them would at least mention the need to attend an AA meeting. And occasionally a disturbing stereotype (involving gays, blue-collar workers, black people or Southerners) rears its uninteresting head, but it is difficult to discern whether these are the characters' shortcomings or the author's.

Each woman's issue is resolved, however, in a unique, uncliched, unsentimental and ultimately satisfying way. All in all, this book passed my three-pronged test: I learned something about life from it (mostly in Isabel's chapters), I felt something (tears stung my eyes at several points along the way), and I continued to reflect on the characters well after I closed the book.

Patricia Elam's first novel will be published next spring.