Book review: The Audacity of Sara Grayson by Joani Elliott

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

ARC courtesy Simon & Schuster (via NetGalley) – release date 25 May 2021.

There is a certain romanticisation about writing that dwells steadfastly in the hearts of anyone who hasn’t actually written.

Truth be told, it probably resides in the souls of those who do write; however, there it is quickly ripped asunder and stomped upon and filled full of self-recrimination as rose-coloured ideas of the creative process give way to the hard slog of simply getting it done.

This, of course, makes writing seem the most dire of pursuits, and yes, often times it is, but then like many creative pursuits, there are those transcendent moments when all the pieces come together, when what you long for and imagine and what you accomplish actually sync and all that angst and struggle seems euphorically, or even quietly happily, worthwhile.

Joani Elliott’s novel The Audacity of Sara Grayson perfectly and insightfully captures both the glorious highs and desperate lows of writing a novel in ways that will have any writer nodding their head in complete recognition.

Even better than this though, she sets this wonderful and emotionally muscular of books against the sometimes harsh realities of life which rarely plays along in creating the perfect conditions in which to write that great novel that has been coursing through the marrow for years, even before you were aware of its existence, and which is begging to be let out to see the light of critical day.

“She opened the envelope. There were only five pages. How could there be only five pages? It was bad enough that Sara’s mother was asking the impossible from the underworld–couldn’t she have left her more than a few breadcrumbs? She got up to leave and saw that damn Ellery poster from the display window across the street.” (P. 91)

In an idealised world, writers have faithful spouses plying them with tea and biscuits (or wine and cake – your choice) while they sit happily ensconced in their book-lined eyrie up in the rafters of the house, one which looks out on a bucolic scene which aptly matches the serene life within.

But that is fantasy, and this is reality, and in The Audacity of Sara Grayson the titular protagonist comes hard up against the salient truth of being creative which is that it rarely takes place in a world ideally suited to the task.

In 32-year-old Sara’s world, the cold reality is that her beloved bestselling writer mother has just died from cancer, her husband has divorced her and the closest she is getting to writing anything are cheesy greeting cards and coupon blurbs.

Not exactly the stuff of Nobel Prize writing dreams now is it?

Even worse than this, in her final will and testament, Cassandra Bond, her bright, effusive, wise and caring mother, beloved by millions of devoted readers, has given Sara one last great task to complete on her behalf – writing the MUCH longed-for book number five in her mega-selling series, Ellery Dawson, a final entry that is supposed to wrap everything up and makes fans sigh with the sheer perfection of neatly finished-off storytelling.

Sara’s first response, and this rings so true, is to say “thank you but no thank you”, convinced as she is that she hasn’t got what it takes to fulfill her mother’s dying wish.

To be honest, neither do a lot of people with the exception of her older sister and her best friend at the college where she teaches creative writing Binti (and the initially grudging editorial assistance of an old flame of her mother’s), and yet in the face of own massive self doubt and active efforts by the president of the publishing company to sabotage her efforts, she decides to honour what her mother wanted, unleashing life change on a grand scale that is never easily wrought but ultimately deeply satisfying.

Joani Elliott (image courtesy official author site)

For all the wish fulfillment contained within its highly readable pages, The Audacity of Sara Grayson is a resolutely grounded and unstintingly honest book.

Whether it’s addressing the end of a relationship, sisterly bonds, the death of a parent or the uncovering of long suppressed family secrets, which form one of the core narrative threads and which come close to derailing the publication of the fifth book and entire Sara’s mum’s entire legacy, The Audacity of Sara Grayson is beautifully, affectingly honest.

This adds a real depth to the novel which has its fair share of happier than you might think possible moments but which also acknowledges that these moments are hard won from life’s more difficult and challenging times which are far more numerous than anyone likes to admit.

Certainly Sara, who is as self-assured, confident and talented as anyone could hope to be, has to struggle against a debilitating lack of confidence that comes from the end of her six-year marriage, her fading writing dreams and a saddening sense that all the whispered words of encouragement from her mother that she would do great things as a writer seem to have come to nothing.

Sara is a million miles from being any kind of trainwreck but she is a real, flawed and uncertain at times person, and it’s this innate relatability that makes her such an appealing protagonist because what she faces feels intimately real, and thus what she achieves feel less fairytale than actually, deliciously possible.

“He said it so sincerely. No harsh feelings or judgment. She looked at Nik, studied his dark brown eyes more deeply. There was a depth there, a sense of peace that she envied. How could she get that? So much was crashing in her head these days–the loss of her mother, the truth about her parents, her divorce, writing Ellery.” (P. 242)

That’s important of course because what good are dreams, even those populating a charmingly wonderful novel, if they don’t feel like they have a chance of coming gloriously true?

Elliott’s great gift as a writer is that she balances beautifully what it means to dream and yet know that a long, hard and challenging road lies ahead of you.

Imbuing The Audacity of Sara Grayson with this sensibility means that all its wish fulfillment moments seem entirely possible, a remarkable achievement given how often books in the self-realisation genre often feel like they possess endings so wildly out of reach that they are good for escapist entertainment but not much more. (Having said that, escapism without real life outcomes is often what we need and is a vibrantly good thing in and of itself.)

The Audacity of Sara Grayson however sits happily in the realms of both “this is gloriously diversionary in the most fanciful of ways” and “you know, with some work, this might just happen” and that makes it one of the best books of its genre to come along in some time.

Possessed of the heart of a starry-eyed dreamer but also mindfully aware of the cold, cruel harshness of life which takes away far more than it ever seems to give at times, The Audacity of Sara Grayson is a delightful novel, one that allows us to make our peace with the brutal and sad realities of being alive while offering giddily, lushly-written hope that just around the corner lies something good and wonderful if we can just hang in there to find it.

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