Note: This review by Jill is followed by separate discussion sections by Jim and Jill, since we both read the book and disagreed on its merits.
On Good Friday in 2002, Father Art Breen is called to the headquarters of the Boston Archdiocese. He receives notice that he is being suspended because of accusations of child abuse leveled against him by an anonymous accuser. Shocked, he is told to vacate the rectory immediately, and repair to an apartment the Church rented for him.
It takes no time for the news to make the newspapers and for everyone to know. Art’s younger sister Sheila, who narrates the story, reports that their mother, appropriately named Mary, is staunchly loyal to her son, and refuses to believe he could have done such a thing. Their brother Mike immediately assumes Art is guilty, and feels nothing but loathing toward Art. Sheila is on the fence, but desperately wants to find out that Art didn’t do it. Their father has no opinion, since he is in the late stages of alcohol-induced mental decline, and lives far in the past.
There is a Mary Magdalene in this passion play as well – Kath Conlon, the daughter of his housekeeper Fran. Kath, beset by demons, becomes a friend to and disciple of Art. But when Art is crucified for the alleged abuse of Kath’s son Aidan, here the story diverges from the four Gospels, becoming Sheila’s “fifth gospel,” as she calls her memoir within a book.
The evildoers that inhabit this story cut a destructive swath through the faith of many believers. Maybe, Sheila thinks, we’ve just got to carve out our own love in the world, because the Church presents too many questions for this cast of characters with no obvious answers. How Sheila gets to this decision runs underneath the story of what really happened with Art, as if Sheila is making her way along the stations of the cross to be reborn, if only she can be.
Discussion by Jill: Jim and I had quite different reactions to this book. Jim grew up in a family a bit like the McGanns, and so to him it seemed almost like he was reading a family memoir. Because of his personal experiences, he could fill in the blanks and flesh out the characters, who seemed as real to him as his own Mom, his Uncles Jim and Mickey, Father Frank, and the rest of his family and community in Chicago where life was organized by the parish to which your neighborhood belonged. And indeed, I have been able to get to know his family enough since we have been together to appreciate how important secrets, denial, and “a canon of approved stories” are to “lace curtain Irish.”
But since I have had only a few real life equivalents enabling me to flesh out the bare bones glimpses we got of the characters in the book, I was actually kind of bored at times. The narrator, Sheila, was a cipher to me, and even Art did not start to come into focus until the end. Only Mike, the hot-headed brother with the too-controlled wife seemed real to me.
Discussion by Jim: I can’t fathom how Jill can say the characterizations were “bare bones.” Just as almost everyone knows enough about Jewish families to enjoy them in fiction without elaborate background descriptions of their culture, nearly everyone knows enough about the Irish to obviate detailed descriptions of their culture.
Haigh knows a lot about Irish foibles, and can capture them with a few deft sentences. For example, Mary, the mother, never drinks alcohol at home. As the author explains,
She hadn’t had a pint in donkey’s years, had avoided the stuff entirely after Ted [the father] got bad. For years you couldn’t have a sip in his presence; it wasn’t worth the grief. I witnessed these arguments many times as a child: if Ma drank one, Dad considered it permission to finish the case.”
She also understands the perplexity with which many Catholics view the more abstruse doctrines of their faith. In light of the sex abuse scandals in the Church, Mike’s wife, who is Lutheran, argues that their son should not receive his first Holy Communion because he is too young to know what that is supposed to mean. Mike says that the boy accurately repeats the meaning of communion (the doctrine of transubstantiation) right out of the catechism. But, his wife counters, he doesn’t understand those words. Mike replies, “Nobody does.”
Sheila, the narrator, is not a cipher. She is the only character in the book who overcomes the extreme reluctance of the Irish to discuss any uncomfortable or embarrassing issues. Her brother, Mike, simply assumes Art’s guilt without talking to him. Her mother sinks into a state of denial and never considers the possibility of Art’s guilt. Sheila, on the other hand, approaches Art directly and ultimately learns the truth.
The story is compelling and plausible. The characters are well developed and nuanced.
Rejoinder by Jill: I am right because I like the sound of saying that, AND moreover, I am not an essentialist, and would not presume all Irish families are alike, even if all happy families are alike (per Tolstoy). Therefore I wouldn’t consider taking a leap of faith (to use Kierkegaard in the service of making a clever double entendre) to flesh out the characters, rather than relying on the author for help in that department.
Evaluation: I wasn’t thrilled with the characterization, but Jim loved it. Regardless, there is plenty to think about in this book, and it is a gold mine for book clubs.
Jim’s Rating: 4/5
Jill’s Rating: 3/5
Compromise Rating: 3.5/5
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2011