What Would You Do for Love? The Ninth Hour

51ZwhNBTHvL._AC_UL160_   The first time I saw Sister Mary Kathleen without her veil and starched cowl, my thoughts sacrilegiously went to her weight, no longer hidden behind her flowing robes.  Nuns were my second mothers from first grade through high school from Sister Anita in second grade who hid me in the coat closet to read the upper level books while my classmates struggled through beginning readers, to Sister Marie Gabriel, who inspired all girls in her Latin class to don the habit to look like her – rumor had it she was once a Rockette.  Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour has nuns living through the early twentieth century, but Sisters Jeanne and Lucy had many of the same blithe goodness and no nonsense attitudes of the nuns I remember.

McDermott frames her story around a young girl, Sally, from before her birth to after her death.  The book opens with Sally’s father, Jim, committing suicide, an act with consequences throughout the story for unborn Sally, her pregnant mother Annie, and their interactions with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who come to their rescue.  The nuns give Annie a job in their laundry, where Sally plays as an infant and later entertains the nuns with her antics.

Sally spends all her free time with the nuns, and eventually, as many good Catholics girls do, she entertains the idea of becoming one of them.  Her shadowing of Sister Lucy ministering to the needy families, elderly shut-ins, disabled invalids, and sickly poor quickly removes her aspirations to be a nurse.  Changing sheets, diapers, and bedpans does not appeal to her.

Thinking she might still have the calling to be a nun, Sally takes the train to the motherhouse in Chicago.  Having been sheltered from the real world, Sally quickly discovers she does not have the patience or the virtue to deal with the low life she encounters on the ride.  Unlike the saintly nuns she admires, Sally realizes she is more likely to punch someone than meekly hand over her money.  When she arrives in Chicago, she immediately takes the returning train home to New York.

Ignorant of her mother’s new love affair with the milkman who is married to an invalid, Sally finds the bed she shared with her mother now taken when she returns.  Mrs. Tierney, a friend of her mother’s, offers her a room in her family’s big house, and Mr. Tierney finds her a job at his hotel’s tea room.

The story bounces around in time frames, teasing with information (Patrick, Sally’s future husband, is one of Mrs. Teirney’s sons), and flows back and forth through the years.  Most of the story is told in flashback with Sally now dead and Patrick in assisted living.  Although the narrator seems to be one or more of their grandchildren, McDermott achieves the effect of reminiscing about the old days, with jumps to narration by the principals in real time.

The one constant vein throughout is the presence of the good nuns.  Each nun in the story follows a familiar stereotype but with an underlying note of human weakness: the take charge Sister Lucy who orders the emptying of chamber pots and deftly bandages sore limbs but uses her influence to punish a bully; the rulebreaker  Sister St. Saviour who rescues the widow and child but who would defy church doctrine by burying a suicide in the church’s consecrated plot; the hard working Sister Illuminata who labors in the damp basement never complaining about her arthritic knees but dances through her ironing; and Sister Jeanne, who finds good everywhere but facilitates the final murder in the story.   They are distinct individuals and despite their vision-blocking headgear, they see everything and know more about what’s happening around them than they let you know.

Like most stories with Irish characters at the core, death in The Ninth Hour is prominent, along with misery and despair.  Nevertheless, the love stories – about Sally and Patrick, about the nuns for those in their care, about Red Whelan who takes Patrick’s grandfather’s place in the Civil War – all conspire to create an uplifting message and remind the reader of a time when self-sacrifice meant more than self-serving.

 

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The Husband’s Secret

9780399159343_p0_v4_s260x420What if – you found a letter with instructions to open after the writer died, but that person was still alive – would you open it?  I would not be able to resist, and when Liane Moriarty teased with that cliffhanger through several chapters – about 200 pages – of The Husband’s Secret, keeping the contents hidden, the speculation of what is in that letter is as much fun as learning the actual content.  If you remember Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, you know she can take an improbable storyline and drench it with humor, pathos, and even a few life lessons.

Three lives intersect in this drama: Cecilia finds her husband’s sealed “do-not-open-until-after-death” letter in a stack of old tax forms, while he is on a business trip; Tess flees from Melbourne to Sydney with her young son when she discovers her husband and best friend have fallen in love – and asked that they all live together as one big family; Rachel’s beloved two-year-old grandson is about to relocate with his family to New York City, as she continues to search for the murderer of her teen-age daughter, killed twenty years ago.  Yes, there is a murder, but the mystery of whodunit is solved early in the tale, with consequences and suspicions connecting these three women’s disparate lives.

The story premise is captivating – I read it quickly to know the outcome, and Moriarty does produce an unexpected surprise at the end.  After the shocking climax, the denouement offers more likely “what if” scenarios that have a nostalgic effect, but the clear message to be responsible for yourself, not everyone else, can connect to all of us who get tired of being good all the time.

Hard to categorize Moriarty’s style – more than chick lit, mystery thriller, romance, beach read – and always satisfying.  Now I’m looking for some of her earlier books – seems there are quite a few I’ve missed from her website.

Review of “What Alice Forgot”

Unfinished Desires

Priests and nuns who fail in their promises to be perfect models of morality are more than disappointing. When they fall short in living up to their feigned image, the revelation can be more devastating than if they had not taken religious vows – you expect better of them.

Mix this with teenage girls, confined in an all girls’ Catholic boarding school, and you have ignition. In her latest novel, Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin mixes volatile teenage girls with nuns still wearing those restrictive habits, a metaphor for promoting the hide-everything habits of the nineteen fifties.

Suzanne Ravenel tells the story as an aged resident of the convent home where old nuns go to die. As she tapes her recollections of the Mount St. Gabriel’s School where she started as a student and ended as the Mother Superior, her sins of pride, manipulation, jealousy and vengeance slowly unravel. Even sex becomes a whispered intention. The energetic Mother Ravenel’s motives were not always holy.

Godwin uses Tildy Stratton and Chloe Starnes as the freshmen students under the raving Ravenel, who stir the pot. Tildy is distantly related to the Mother Superior; she and Chloe are cousins. But then, the story takes place in the South – and “everyone is related in the South.”

The story ambles along slowly, repeating scenes and reiterating the relationships among the characters – their familial as well as vindictive ties. At times, you will think you have read the paragraphs before in a previous chapter, and you probably have. As Ravenel writes her history of the school, the tease is the promise of a horrid plot enacted by the class of ’52 (Tildy and Chloe) that caused Mother Ravenel to take a year off to recuperate.

Godwin inserts the infamous 9/11 news as Ravenel reaches a breakthrough in her writing; amazingly, the news warrants only a page – possibly a comment that Ravenel’s personal trauma holds more weight for her than the tragedy of strangers.

The story line is trite and overwrought with petty drama. But Godwin expertly captures teenage girls with their inner angst at a time when thirteen year-olds are struggling with hormones and rebellion – yet still quavering on the edge of submitting to adult authority. Godwin clearly examines how the breakthrough from authority can be ugly, and how girls at that age can be cruel – mostly to each other.

As the story reaches its climax, embellished legends are stripped to reality; saints become sinners, and the metaphor for the false mask of religiosity in the Catholic Church is hard to ignore. The reputation of the devout patron saint on which the school was founded has conveniently been doctored. On the other hand, you might just enjoy the juicy melodrama, and keep the faith.

The ending never seems to come; Godwin is determined to take each character to completion – all the way into old age. In this case, following teenagers into old age is overkill – more than you want to know, but every single thread is tied at the end.

If you suffered through Catholic school and had the distinction of surviving indoctrination by the nuns, you will mostly appreciate the portraits of the women behind the veil. They are, after all, just human – but it is disappointing to find that out.