Sunday Salon – Joint Review of “Faith” by Jennifer Haigh

The Sunday Salon.com

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, his priest 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

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21 Responses to Sunday Salon – Joint Review of “Faith” by Jennifer Haigh

  1. I didn’t expect to like this one — there’s just be so much bad bad new about Catholic priests, but actually thought this one was pretty good. Glad you posted your thoughts and Jims.

  2. cbjames says:

    I enjoyed this review. While this is not a book I would ever read, your review of it was lots of fun. I hope you’ll both do this again.

  3. Sandy says:

    You two crack me up. Well Jill, I am all about the sisterhood, but I’m going to have to agree with Jim on this one. I don’t live in this kind of family, but I AM Catholic. Not that I think you have to be Catholic to appreciate this book. It rattled my cage, this novel. It made me think. It toyed with my emotions. It ultimately blew me away. The audio is superb as well, and as a result of all that, I think it was one of my five stars last summer.

  4. Barbara says:

    The joint comments were a lot of fun for someone who is totally out of the discussion since I haven’t read the book. At least you two talk about these things. I have a very good friend with whom certain subjects are taboo between us: abortion and the scandal about sex abuse. I think we both avoid the subjects because we simply want to remain friends with no controversy between us.

  5. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m going with Jim on this one. I didn’t grow up in a family like that but I thought the characterizations were so good I felt I knew that family as I read the book.

  6. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    I’m with Jim! 😀 I loved this book and thought the author was brilliant!!!

  7. florinda3rs says:

    Y’all really should do these joint reviews more often 😃! I’m afraid I’m going to be one more vote for Jim overall, although I’m with Jill in finding Sheila a bit of a cipher. Despite that, this was one of my 2011 “Books of the Year.”

  8. Jenny says:

    You know, so many people LOVED this one but I thought it was just okay as well in terms of the characters. But it’s also not a family that I relate to either so maybe that’s why.

  9. bookingmama says:

    I’m with Jim on this one!!! Loved it!

  10. zibilee says:

    I have had this book on my shelf for some time now, and both your opinions have swayed me. I am going to try to get my book club to pick this one when it’s my turn to pick. I think that it would be interesting for those of us who are Catholics and those who aren’t. I wonder if I would find the characters sympathetic and believable, or if they would just be too flat for me. Gotta find out for sure!

  11. Beth F says:

    Awesome review. I wish I could get Mr. BFR to review. Anyway, this one is on my mp3 player … still unlistened to.

  12. Meg says:

    Enjoyed your joint interpretations of this one! I read Faith back in January, right around the time I experienced a death in the family, so I was incredibly emotional off the top — but reading this one really put me over the edge. My heart ached. I cried in the middle of getting an oil change at a local repair shop smelling of oil and stale coffee. It definitely started my year off with a bang, and I’ve thought of Faith often since finishing.

  13. Couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve had this much fun reading a review! Faith is downloaded on my ipod and ready to go… and I have a feeling I’m going to agree with Jim on this one. “Gold mine for book clubs” got my attention, too. I’m hosting my club’s annual pot luck dinner tomorrow night and hadn’t decided on a title to pitch. I’m set now…

  14. Jenners says:

    I so enjoyed reading this and I hope you read more books together that you disagree about. I’m going to have to go with Jill…her rejoinder was strong. I suspect I might have a similar reaction.

  15. “Jill and Jim — the he-said/she-said book review podcast”

    I would absolutely subscribe to that … but might hurt myself when I fell off the treadmill laughing at your clever banter!

  16. Rachel says:

    How fun that you and your husband can read and review a book together! My husband reads about a book every two months and we are rarely interested in the same book. Luckily he’ll listen to me go on and on about a book even if he has no interest in it! LOL

  17. I love your dissenting opinions, and how you managed to get the last word in Jill! 🙂 This isn’t a book that has called to me, but your review at least made me stop and take notice of it.

  18. Care says:

    Very enjoyable, informative (had to go look up ‘cipher’) and successful review. I now want to read it and see if I fall on the Jill or Jim side of reaction.

  19. stacybuckeye says:

    Oh, how sweet, a compromise. Everyone married couple should take note! Your review did make me curious about this one, which hasn’t been the case up to this point.

  20. booksnyc says:

    I have to agree with Jim on this one – I thought Faith was excellent and the characters did seem familiar to me. But I come from an Irish Catholic family so there you go . . .

    love the concept of the joint review – great job!

  21. JuneA** says:

    Enjoyed the discussion between the two of you and in the comments. I wouldn’t normally pick this up to read (any type of pedophile book) but I’ll have to try this.

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