Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers by Elizabeth Edwards








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I defy any reader of Elizabeth Edwards’ new book, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, to get through the whole thing with smiling and tearing up. Being moved by what she says tends to sneak up on a reader. Her plainspoken style makes us comfortable, and before we know it, we are feeling for what she is saying. This book is a tribute to strong communities, to networks of people who help each other, to both friends and strangers who are willing to help others. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Chapel Hill,” pp. 64-67:


When I was in eighth grade, I sat one rainy day under the covered review platform on the Naval Academy parade grounds and talked to one of the younger Navy wives from our street. She was pretty, in white capris and a blue sleeveless shirt. I adored my mother, but she was, well, a mother, with shirtwaist dresses and a perfect French twist. This woman had wispy short hair, not done at all, and she sat on the cement platform and talked to me like I was a friend. And, as a friend, she said that when the time came, I should go to college where she had gone, Mary Washington College. I hadn’t heard of it, but if she liked it, I liked it, and I carried this flimsy notion with me throughout high school. During my senior year of high school— now back in the States, in Alexandria, Virginia— when it came time to apply to college, I applied to Mary Washington College, the women’s college of the University of Virginia, in Fredericksburg. And when I was accepted, I went. I went at the end of an era, the tail end of what I refer to as the Franny and Zooey years, after the novel by J. D. Salinger.


There was a time in the late l960s when a world that had existed for decades ended. The world of men’s colleges, muscular and intense, and women’s colleges, serene and pastoral, and the weekend trips from one to the other. A time of hard-sided suitcases carried by well-dressed young women onto local trains, and then by sport-coated young men to the grand old houses of widows where bed­rooms had been transformed into bunk rooms for visiting girls. I wasn’t Franny Glass, but like Franny, I took the train to the men’s college, in my case, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, for weekends. Like Franny, my date met me at the station and we walked to whatever approved guesthouse he had found for me for the weekend, where I would room with girls from Hollins and Sweet Briar and Randolph-Macon, and I would admire their elegant clothes and their shiny blonde hair and gold jewelry, and then later, like Franny, I would make fun of all that I had envied, drawing amusing caricatures of the other colleges to a date more intent on getting me drunk than being amused by me. It was the very last min­utes of this era, and I was glad to be there, glad to have slipped in before the door shut forever.

The point of a women’s college, or so I had always thought, is that young women, uninhibited and unintimidated by young men, would blossom and find their rightful place in communities, and they would take that sense of confidence and sometimes entitlement with them into the world. You would have to ask someone who was inhibited or intimidated whether it worked. I was neither. I had been president of my class; I had been brash enough to get kicked off the cheerleading squad for talking back to a teacher. I am pretty certain I didn’t need to feel less inhibited, less intimidated. In the first weeks, still wearing my freshman beanie (yes, we really had to wear them), I was already flexing a robust independence. Asked in fresh­man English to write an essay that started “I began to become an individual when . . . ,” I did not write the recipe-style essay (add a pinch of fun, bake for eighteen years) that won the best grade. Instead I wrote an essay about the abortion conflict and got one of the worst grades. And it was fine with me.

There is a camaraderie at a women’s college that is intellectual and social and political. This is not to suggest we were made out of one cloth. The student referendum on whether to allow us to wear pants to class, rather than dresses, failed, for Pete’s sake . . . in 1968. A fellow student turned me in one time when, after getting out of physical education late, I wore my shorts—under my buttoned rain­coat—to class in violation of that dress rule. (She should know, if she reads this, that I could name her but choose not to.) We dated fraternity men who wore sports coats and Marines from Quantico who wore uniforms. We acted or danced or—in my case—wrote, or we did none of these. We were not all friends, but within that larger body, we worked out communities, often more than one, which met our needs and allowed us to find essential parts of the adults we would become.

As a freshman at Mary Washington, I had a junior roommate. While my parents tried to figure out how to pay for college, the freshman dorms filled up, and I found myself in a grand old dormi­tory rooming with Christine Cole from Warren, Ohio—her blonde hair shaved like a boy’s, her paintings of nudes propped along every wall of our room, her expensive clothes hanging, tags still attached, on every door frame. Other than my younger sister, she was my first roommate, and I wasn’t sure my parents were going to let me— dressed head to toe in a peach Villager outfit, except for my red beanie—stay in a room with this . . . grown-up. But they did. I stayed, and Christine tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce me to cof­fee and cigarettes and, successfully, to bridge and to her circle of lit­erary friends—Christina Askounis, as beautiful as she was eloquent, Linda Burton, sexy and mysterious, Susan Forbes, daffy and adorable and brilliant, and Ann Chatterton, maternal and warm. They were sophisticated; I was naive but smart enough to sit silently on the sidelines, learning as I was listening, the sponge all mothers hope their children will be—although I suspect this was not what my mother hoped I would absorb. I hoped I could, by osmosis, acquire their ease with words, with professors, with men. With the girls my own age—with Nancy Bolish and Karen Adlam, Ernie Kent, Debbie Oja—it was easy, weekdays of work and weekends of fun, fraternity houses and trips home, boys like Kellam Hooper and Toby Summerour, and vegetable soup in Ann Carter Lee Hall.

I wanted to be grown and sophisticated. And I wanted to be young and carefree. I succeeded at neither. I was still a girl, used to boundaries and rules, struggling with a complex world, made more complex by war. I tried to push aside the Vietnam War, which had dominated my life—and not in a positive way. But I could not, and not simply because it was still in the news but because it was still in my house. My father was in charge of all the Navy ROTC units across the county, and when I would call or come home, he would complain about “those college students” who had fire-bombed an NROTC unit at one school or were staging a sit-in at another. I was two people then—the carefree college student, hanging on to what I thought was a normal American life, and a military daughter. My political opinions were forming, but I was quiet. Or quiet at home. I was in Washington, in Georgetown at the Tombs, a watering hole frequented by Georgetown University students, when the word went out in March 1968 that Lyndon Johnson was withdrawing from the race for the Democratic nomination for President. The place exploded into celebration.


I don’t recall that I was in the Tombs that night, but I was somewhere in D.C., shocked that Johnson would not run for reelection. Edwards goes through much of her memoir in a breezy way, but all readers know that the death of her son, Wade, was just around the corner, as is her breast cancer. Saving Graces is a moving book full of optimism, and packed with the many ways that friends and strangers reach out with a helping hand. On any day that you’re feeling low, this is a fine book to pick up.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


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