This is a truly bizarre story, contorted by the manipulation of circumstances of one woman’s insatiable demands and rabid instincts gone awry. Although the prologue indicates a brutal murder, the story opens on a happier note. After the death of his wife, 31-year-old Paul Pierson is virtually inconsolable. When he meets and marries Pamela Schaeffer, his extended family is hopeful that Paul’s life will change for the better.
Working for the family-run business, the three Pierson siblings - Paul, Jack and Kay (fifteen years sober) - are signing the necessary papers to partner in the business, whatever happens to one of them critical to all. Meanwhile, Paul and Pamela have purchased an expensive home, the bride’s ambitions threatening to exceed the couple’s financial limits. After the birth of their daughter, Kaitlin, the newlyweds hit a rough patch, Pamela commuting on weekends to see her family after accepting employment in another city.
As the weekend visits become more infrequent, Paul suspects his wife is having an affair. A few nasty confrontations later, the couple is divorced, Paul keeping the child with him most of the time until the divorce settlement is made. The family, always close, is deeply affected by Paul’s personal troubles, disappointed in Pamela, and soon second-guessing the bride’s original intentions.
Meanwhile, Kay reveals the Pierson’s long history of alcoholism, including her own. All is graphically illustrated as Paul succumbs to the pressure of the divorce and turns to drinking to escape his troubles. What begins as a domestic drama morphs into a long family narrative that explores the effects of alcoholism on every member of the family. The word is dysfunction. And denial, codependence and enabling.
Unable to control Pamela’s constant assaults on Paul to get more money, all become embroiled in a frustrating legal battle that drains them of the energy to fight. But with a small child involved, there is really no question of letting Pamela win custody, in spite of her schemes to embarrass the family and impugn their reputations.
Hinted at in the beginning, the looming murder seems irrelevant to this rambling family tale, a grotesque, convoluted legal battle that strains family resources and patience, Pamela dragging all and sundry into her Machiavellian plots that persist like Chinese water torture. In addition, the family’s sense of helplessness exacerbates a no-win situation, exhausting the reader along with the Piersons.
In a surprise twist, the story is turned upside-down, but one has to wonder what the outcome would be without the convenient resolution. Would the family business survive or disintegrate under Pamela’s relentless attacks? Based on actual events, this disturbing tale leaves me wanting a stiff drink. (Re: the title: I never did discover any “Shades of Grace.”)