Toni Jordan’s debut novel was a delight to read. It’s not often I come across unconventional protagonists, and this one has become a favourite.
“It all counts.”
So begins Toni Jordan’s debut novel about a woman with a peculiar problem: She counts—everything.
Grace Lisa Vandenburg lives by numbers—from the number of letters in her name, to the number of bites it takes to eat a flourless orange cake sprinkled with poppy seeds from her local cafe, she shapes her world using whatever unit of measurement presents itself.
So when she finds herself 1 banana short at the grocery checkout, what’s she supposed to do?
My shopping trolley has 2 trays of chicken thighs, fat and glossy, each tray containing 5. A carton of eggs marked as a dozen. (Each week I assure ecstasy-boy or high-pain-threshold-girl, a Kiwi backpacker with seven piercings in each ear, that I have already checked the eggs. This is so they won’t open the carton and notice I have removed 2 and left them in the assorted spices.) Plastic bags containing 100 beans (that’s a pain), 10 carrots, 10 baby potatoes, 10 small onions. 100 grams of salad mix. (I refuse to shop in a supermarket without a digital scale.) 10 little tins of tuna. 10 orange bottles of shampoo. 9 bananas.
How the fuck did I get 9 bananas in my trolley?
Faced with losing her place in the queue to pick up an extra banana, Grace distracts the guy behind her and steals his “unfettered banana”.
And that’s how she meets Seamus O’Reilly, a rather ordinary man who works in a nondescript job, but who sees Grace as a person rather than a condition. After years of being defined by her obsession with numbers, it’s a relief—and a puzzle—for Grace. To her surprise, suddenly she finds herself forgetting to count.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Seamus sees past Grace’s condition and that in itself is beautiful, but it’s Grace’s responses that continually surprised and delighted me. There’s a part of Grace that welcomes her compulsion, and she faces detractors and sympathisers with defiance.
He leaves his swing and walks over to mine. I’m panicked for a moment. What is he doing? I won’t be able to bear it if he holds my hand and looks into my eyes, all sympathy. If he tries to unravel me. If he kneels beside me and touches my knee like I’ve got cancer, I’ll scream. If he looks at me with that mix of concern and relief—the furrowing of his brow meant to be empathetic but which really conveys triumph because no matter how fucked up his life might be, it isn’t as bad as mine—well, if he does that, I won’t cope at all. If he looks at me like that so help me I’ll punch him right in the face.
Her enjoyment of numerical trivia—mostly centred around her pin-up boy, the mathematician Nikola Tesla—is infectious and infused with humour at unexpected moments, making her internal monologues a treat to read. She takes offense, for example, at being likened to “those crazy handwashers”.
In part it’s a coping mechanism, but numbers have also come to define a large part of who she is—it makes her unique: “If I change myself, how will I be diminished?”
Yet an underlying darkness permeates Grace’s story. It’s clear that Grace’s obsession with numbers stems from a childhood trauma. Jordan tries to be coy, but it’s not difficult to guess. This unrelenting sense of discomfort in the narrative allows Jordan to layer the text and introduce currents of tension between Grace, Seamus, and Grace’s family.
Grace also fears normalcy even as she craves it once Seamus enters her life. “I’m thinking about sitting in a car for as long as I like, going out to dinner, sleeping in on Sundays. I’m thinking about how much I have to gain.” That which consoled her in her isolation becomes a constraint as she explores this new relationship.
Technically not a romance
Although I wouldn’t consider Addition as a book strictly within the genre, it features a relatively strong romance. The love story is woven so subtly into Grace’s story that, without her realising it, Seamus becomes the catalyst for a series of events that cause Grace to question whether or not she’s happy with the life she’s living and to confront some very personal issues that underlie her condition.
I loved Seamus.
Yet Grace remains the centrepiece of this story. Jordan portrays her humour, her foibles, her habits so vividly that it’s impossible not to be almost charmed by her obsession and, later, be caught up with her struggle to shed her dependence on numbers.
*** Plot spoilers ahead. Skip to the next section if you don’t want to know. ***
My main issue with the story is the way Jordan chooses to portray Grace’s treatment. Watching Grace negotiate a completely new way of thinking and living and being is almost heartbreaking, as we see her slowly losing her connection with her world. Conventional medicine causes some serious changes in Grace’s mental and physical state, to the point where she demands her own self back, free of drugs and the intrusions of therapy.
It’s not the conflicts that I find disturbing—in fact, Jordan shows those very, very well—but the either-or position that Grace takes. She’s either on medication or she’s not; there’s no compromise and no attempts to find better doctors or therapists.
Even assuming that Grace can thrive without drugs and therapy (a la A Beautiful Mind), and putting aside my concern about the message this sends to people who may benefit from a traditional medical approach to treating mental disorders, I found it a bittersweet outcome. I wanted Grace to find a therapist she can connect with—not necessarily so she can give up counting, but because she might develop even more effective coping mechanisms in the process.
But the ending! Is there a happy ending?!?
Seamus is adorable. I could never have recommended this book if he disappeared from Grace’s life.
Yay or nay?
I loved this book. I read a library copy, but it’s definitely a keeper, and I’m torn between getting the original Australian edition or ordering the hardback US edition. While the romance doesn’t dominate, it drives the story. Grace and Seamus are at times lovely, sad, thrilling, devastating and always unpredictable. It was an absolute pleasure to be in their company.