First off, I think I need to come clean and just own that I have a total girl crush on Margaret Atwood after reading only two of her novels. While the Handmaid’s Tale kind of rocked my world, made my heart pound and caused a few tears to be shed (ok, more than a few…) as I pondered the very real parallels with today’s current political crusading, Alias Grace was a story unto itself and utterly cemented my girl crush for the eloquent and indomitable Margaret Atwood. Her stories, so far, have been captivating and beautifully written.
I first heard of Alias Grace by stumbling across the Netflix original series. Seeing not only that it was based on a novel by a familiar author but that the plot seemed less likely to make me sob every episode (I still haven’t been able to finish the Hulu series based on the Handmaid’s tale; too close to home!) I was sucked into Grace’s story and immediately binged-watched 3 episodes in a row. It was only the late hour of 11pm and my usual 5am wake-up alarm that forced me to curtail my viewing pleasure…silly adulting getting in the way of my Netflix.
The story that is continually spun deeper and deeper with each episode is enhanced by a well-chosen cast of actresses and actors and one can’t help but feel transported right into the midst of the mystery being explored. Grace Marks is a convicted murderess who cannot remember what happened the day of the murders and in the past, has exhibited signs of hysteria and possibly insanity. A committee of well-intended Methodist Church members have been working tirelessly to prove Grace’s innocence and garner a pardon from the courts. To this end, they enlist the services of Dr. Jordon, a young doctor in the burgeoning field of psychiatry, to interview Grace and determine whether or not she indeed suffers from hysteria, in the hopes that his report may help sway a judge to pardon Grace.
Day after day, Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, asking her to start at the beginning of her life. The tale she relates, in vivid detail, encompasses such a span of human experience. Grief, joy, sorrow, fear, friendship and loss. Grace’s family immigrated to Canada from Ireland and the description seemed reminiscent of tales told by Irish families who immigrated on the “coffin ships” during the Great Irish famine. Grace’s mother dies during the voyage and once the family reaches Canada, Grace is left to care for her younger siblings while her father spends all their money drinking, until the day he throws her out of the house to find work.
Grace ends up employed as a serving girl in a wealthy house and is befriended by the vivacious Mary Whitney. Through an all-too-common situation, Mary Whitney ends up pregnant by the son of the household owners and dies in the evening after enduring an abortion. Grace is troubled by the loss of her friend and when a better-paying opportunity is offered to her, she jumps at the chance to leave the house where some of the best memories of her young life are entwined with the tragedy of Mary’s death.
The decision to accept this new position is where the real story starts. The trifecta of tension between Grace’s new master, Mr. Kinnear, the housekeeper (or is she?) Nancy Montgomery and the stablehand James McDermott eventually leads to the pivotal mystery of the series/novel. McDermott and Grace are arrested for the murders of Mr. Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery and McDermott claims all the way to the hanging scaffold that Grace was the mastermind behind the murders and the one who convinced him to carry them out. But did Grace knowingly commit the murders? Is her amnesia real or only a convenient defense against a murder charge?
As Grace relates more and more of her memories from before and after the events, I couldn’t help but wonder if she is guilty? I swayed on this decision many a time, sometimes because I didn’t want her to be guilty or maybe she was justifiably guilty, such as the actions leading to the murders were in self-defense? By the end of the series, I don’t know that I really cared if she was guilty or innocent, I just WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!!! However, similar to the ending of Handmaid’s Tale, you are left to draw your own conclusions as to what happens during the murders and if Grace, herself, had a knowing hand in the acts.
I decided to read the book version after finishing the TV series as I was curious to see if the ending in the book would give a bit more depth to the story. As much as I loved the Netflix series, the ending felt somewhat abrupt. However, the novel ends in much the same manner (and in some ways, the minor changes between the novel and the series adaptation I actually like better in the series but this may simply be due to seeing this before reading the book) but overall, this is one of the better book-to-screen adaptations I have encountered.
Not convinced yet that you want to watch the TV series or read the book? Well, to further pique your interest, this novel fictionalizes the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace Marks and James McDermott were indeed the servants arrested and convicted for the murders, with James sentenced to death and Grace to life in prison. Grace was spared the death sentence due to being only 16 at the time of the murders. And, *spoiler alert* after Grace’s pardon and release from prison, not much is known of her life. As Margaret Atwood would say “the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma.”
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