Most kids tell lies to feel special, Calvin Becker says. He tells lies to feel normal.
Becker’s family members are extreme Christian fundamentalists, reformed Calvinists, sent to Switzerland to save the souls of Roman Catholics. Their loud public prayer, witnessing the faith to total strangers, endless hymn singing and the constant squabbling with other church members on fine points of doctrine have always struck Calvin as odd. Now that he’s 15 years old, their behavior if mortifying.
Saving Grandma is the sequel to Portofino, which introduced us to young Calvin, his parents and two older sisters. Although Saving Grandma has been carefully designed as a stand-alone story, you might as well buy Portofino while you’re at it, because once you hear the irresistible voice of Calvin, you’ll want to read both.
Calvin’s paternal grandmother has moved into the Swiss villa that acts as a Calvin’s home and as a training school for young Calvinist missionaries. She’s and exceptionally bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, irreligious person, and Calvin slowly discovers she’s his soul mate.
Schaeffer’s genius is that he draws terribly imperfect people with tremendous tolerance and affection. Calvin’s mother is insufferably self-righteous, but she’s also entirely devoted to her children. His father is notoriously intolerant and has a dangerous streak of violence, but he’s also capable of honest self-examination and apology. Best of all are the sisters: Janet, born to be worldly in spite of herself, and Rachael, born perfect, certainly one of God’s elect.
Saving Grandma takes us through a year in Calvin’s life fraught with terrible trouble he brings upon himself and serious issues of life and death that others force on him and that no kid should have to deal with. Fortunately, Calvin is almost as resourceful as Huck Finn before him, although finally he cracks. The lesson everyone learns is that of St. Paul: Faith is fine, but without love it’s useless.
The main narrative of Saving Grandma is occasionally interrupted by a sexual fantasy Calvin has about his (maybe) girlfriend Jennifer, and English kid who’s a year his senior and whom he sees only on his family’s annual vacations to Italy. These scenes are funny and poignant, and a reminder that no one can spin out endless sexual imaginings the way a 15-year-old boy can.
Frank Schaeffer has a strange and singular story to tell, and he tells it with happy assurance. It’s impossible not to love it.