Saturday, February 18, 2012

Indie Book Review: Each Angel Burns

I ended up reading Each Angel Burns by Kathleen Valentine because of the debate as to whether or not it was a "Catholic" novel. A while back it was reviewed on a Catholic fiction site and the reviewer didn't think it was much of a Catholic novel. This resulted in some discussion and controversy. Now, while it's true that I'm not wildly qualified to judge this, I'm not any sort of literary scholar, I do know basic Catholic theology and I like to read. So onto the To Be Read list it went. Months later, I'm adding my two cents to the pot.

But before we get into that, let's talk about it as just a novel.

As a novel it is elegant and graceful, with characters I enjoyed and a writing style that mirrored the gentle souls of the main characters.

The story line is... meandering... and honestly I could have handled a few less detours from the main plot. None of them are terrible or badly written, but one in particular made me want to yell, "No, Valentine...the main plot, stick to the main plot!"  I truly enjoyed these characters and wanted to spend time with them, but by the time we were reaching the climax of the story, the fine eddies of extra storyline were getting on my nerves.

Almost all of the main action takes place in flashbacks. And once again, they aren't badly written, but they do add a distance from the events, and I would have liked the immediacy of going through most of the main plot points first hand. One of the flashbacks I completely understand, and fully see it's value. But most of the rest of them followed the pattern of the main story moving ahead a day or two, then one of the characters would remember the night before. In that sort of case, there wasn't much need for the flashback.

It's a little rough on the proofreading front. As any of my regular readers know, I've seen much, much, much worse recently, but I wouldn't call it a clean copy, either.  Call it a solid B effort for proofing.

So, all in all, as a novel, I liked it. I read it in two days, and when I wasn't reading I was thinking about it. That, to me, is a sign of a good novel.

So, it's a good novel, but is it a Catholic novel?  It depends on what makes a Catholic Novel a Catholic Novel. I'd say it's a novel decorated with Catholicism, but not actually a Catholic novel.

It's certainly dressed in the physical details of Catholic life. Most of it is set in a deconsecrated convent. And like the convent most of the characters were, once upon a time, Catholic, but no longer practicing in any meaningful way. There are still the trappings of a Catholic life, but, with one exception, the spark of faith that makes those trappings alive has long left these people. At one point, one of the characters says, "We're meant to be Catholic..." and I think that's a good way of looking at it.  Not, 'we are Catholic,' but 'we're meant to be Catholic.'

I'll take this one step farther with the actually Catholic character, a priest named Pete. In his own personal journey, I can see flashes of Catholic thought and ideas, but in the way he interacts with the other main characters, his best friend, Gabe, and his one time love, Maggie, there is nothing distinctly Catholic about his actions. When it comes to how he deals with his friends, he could have just as easily been a Pastor, and much more easily been a Rabbi.

In fact, besides Father Pete's sexual identity in relation to his faith, and the setting, there's nothing specifically Christian about this story, let alone Catholic. If there was anything in this book specifically relating to salvation by Jesus, I missed it. I'd say the only concrete theological idea espoused by this story is: where love is, there is God also. That's an idea that's not difficult to place in any given tradition.

For me, the question of the 'Catholicness', let alone Christianity, of this novel comes from the actions of the Father Pete.  Pete is a compelling character, one I'd very much enjoy sitting down to dinner with, and not because he's described as the most gorgeous man in the history of maleness. Not to say I'd mind that, but I digress... He's a scholar, a dedicated servant of God, a man of intellectual depth and vibrancy, and a deep, deep well of compassion.

And, while his compassion feels very comforting, it underlies his devotion to his Lord, and if I correctly understand the hierarchical and rigid standards of Catholic theology, undermines it. Given a situation where his best friends are falling in love and committing adultery together, he is pleased for them. Gabe's wife is cheating on him. Maggie's husband is corporeal evil on two legs. Gabe and Maggie are just about perfect for each other. So, for most of us, being pleased at our friends' happiness would be an appropriate response. At least, if we weren't priests.

But Pete is a priest. This is a man who sees his two dearest friends, people he supposedly loves, throwing their souls into mortal peril, and he is pleased for them. Divorce and adultery are great big deals in Catholic theology. Marriage is a sacrament, and breaking that sacrament is a mortal sin. And while separation, and in some cases divorce, are allowable by Catholic doctrine, remarriage without an annulment is not. And, while it's true that in Catholic theology there's no such thing as a direct ticket to hell, moving in with your girlfriend while you're still married to your wife is skating awfully close to the edge of it.

Pete mentions his concern for their souls, once, but his actions: never suggesting Gabe seek marriage counseling or try to reconcile with his wife, let alone suggesting Gabe and Maggie have a chaste relationship, and being willing to officiate Gabe and Maggie's wedding once Gabe's divorce (Annulment is never mentioned either, just Gabe's divorce.) is finalized, shows that he's significantly less worried about their eternal souls than he is for their comfort in this fleeting life.

Beyond that, there is the fact that, by the end of the story we are shown that God clearly approves of all of this as well. If you believe that sex is integral to love, and that wherever love is, there is God, then this book is fine. That would be something that I personally believe. But that's not Catholic theology.

So, perhaps this is a gentle subversion of the Catholic Novel. It is a book that lovingly touches on the accoutrements of Catholicism, but they are only setting. It is a novel that creates an intensely sympathetic priest, who, while living up to the letter of his vows, places more value on this temporal life than the life eternal to come. A man who is more interested in his friends being happy than good.  And there is a version of a God who gives laws, yet smiles when they are broken. I think Valentine's deconsecrated convent is a perfect metaphor for this story: it is beautiful, steeped in traditions and memories that those inside appreciate on an esthetic level, but have no intention of living by.