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.


  1. Excellent review.

  2. Hi Keryl,

    Thanks for your review. I do want to point out that the novel was not written to be a "Catholic Novel" and has not been promoted as such. Naturally, people are welcome to debate it's "Catholic-ness" but, other than the character of Father Peter (who admits "as a priest I have to say... but as a man I understand...") none of the characters are intended as any sort of model of "Catholicness". I'm starting to think I may have to put a disclaimer in the Product Description.

    Thank you for taking the time to review it!

    Kathleen valentine

    1. Alas! That's what happens when you get a review that gets a lot of attention, other people want to weigh in on it.

      I really enjoyed the novel. Thanks for putting it out there!

  3. Maybe it is a Catholic novel for the many Catholics who believe that Catholic theology is much more tied to the letter than the spirit of the Law. There are many, many people who continue to consider themselves Catholic without accepting all of the traditional strictures. Now whether a novel addressed to those people fits a definition of a "Catholic novel", of course, is open to question.

    1. Hey JR,

      Well, when I got into it, there was a small brouhaha going on about whether it counted as a 'Catholic Novel.' (You know how the mini-teapot tempests in the indie book world can go!) And Kathleen is right, there's nothing on the book describing it as a Catholic Novel, nor is it marketed that way. But I was interested in seeing what the fuss was about.

      To me a 'Catholic' (or Christian or Jewish or Hindi or whatever) novel requires some sort of distinct theological point. To me, it's not enough to have the symbols of faith, they've got to actually mean something.

      So, it's not about following all the rules, or lack thereof, it's that (once again, with the exception of Father Pete's struggles with his sexual identity) there was nothing distinctly Catholic in regards to the spiritual life of the characters in this story.

      Granted, no one ever named me the Grand PoohBah of all things Literature, so take it for what it's worth.

    2. I've been thinking about this a lot and it's a very weird position to be in as a writer. Imagine someone read your book and wrote a detailed review picking it apart for historical inaccuracies. "But!" you cry, "It is NOT a historical novel, it was never intended to be a historically accurate novel!" That doesn't matter, the reviewer responds, I've decided to review it that way. Sigh.

    3. Dumb question, I'm sure, but aren't you the one who sent it for review to those of you who'd like to see what I'm talking about and what started this all off.)

      Me, I wanted to respond to the different voices out there talking about the Catholicness of EAB and what it means to be a Catholic novel. While it might not be the question you were hoping the book would raise, it's the question that popped up, and the one that caught my attention. (After all, questions like this are right my religious-studies, theologically interested alley.)

      I'm also an author, and I've noticed that what you think your book is about stops mattering the second you publish it. Once you do that it belongs to the readers, and whatever it is about it they fancy becomes the topic of the day.

      So, this isn't much of a review for you, it's a part in an ongoing discussion between people who have read the book, and what struck them as important about it. Granted, my bit of the conversation is a bit belated, but my guess is over time other people will be intrigued by the idea of how religion fits into life and how that twines with the ideas in your book, pick it up, and add their two cents as well.

    4. Keryl, you have assumed a lot -- most of it incorrect. At the time my book was reviewed on they reviewed any book with Catholic themes -- including some of Anne Rice's books ("Memnoch the Devil") and James Carrol's "Prince of Peace" to name two. Also books by Ron Hansen, Arturo Perez-Reverte and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. None of them could be called "Catholic Novels".

      My book was reviewed by Debra Murphy who is a devout Catholic and an educated Catholic scholar. After she read the book she wrote to me and said that, in good conscience, she had to review the book from her perspective and, if I would prefer, she would not print the review. I wrote back and said that I respected her theological commitment and that she should do what she felt she had to do in good-conscience. Even though I felt she took a tunnel-vision in her review, I felt that, since it was a site for Catholics, I had to respect her choice.

      Why you felt the need to essentially repeat her review on sites that are not at all focused on the "Catholicness" of books, I do not know. You did not state what your credentials for your perspective are nor your commitment to Catholic ideals. You posted your reviews on sites where the "Catholicness" of a book is irrelevant. Why you chose to do that is a mystery.

      The book is selling very well and I have no complaints about how it is perceived. My only observation is that you chose to review a book from an irrelevant perspective, without suitable credentials, and to post it in places that were in no way appropriate to your perspective.

    5. I'm sorry you find the review and it's placement inappropriate.

      As to my CV: I have a degree in religious studies, with a focus on Christian (Catholic) Theology and History. I come from a long line of religiously literate people and discussions at the dinner table where I grew up were just as likely to be about double-predestination versus single-predestination as the Yankees V. The Mets.

      I've reviewed religious fiction and non-fiction in the past.

      I write religiously themed fiction.

      I'm glad your book is selling well. It's a good book. It deserves to sell well.

  4. Those are good points, J.R. When you consider the truly great Catholic novels of the past -- Graham Greene's "The Power and The Glory" and James Carroll's "The Prince of Peace", for example -- the characters are deeply flawed and the priests who are the central characters are the most flawed of all but they persist in their vocations, very imperfectly but out of a sense of duty.

    This contemporary trend toward extreme fundamentalism has become a blight on literature. I've read quite a few of the new "Catholic novels" and, while they are theologically pure they are dull as dirt with characters you'd like to drop banana peels in front of.

    In "Each Angel Burns" my 3 main characters are very, very different spiritually. Maggie says she was baptized but not brought up in any faith. Gabe went to Catholic schools and basically goes through the motions at this stage of his life (like a lot of us). And Father Peter struggles constantly with his love for God and his love for his deeply flawed friends. That's about as Catholic as I ever intended for it to be.

  5. Is there even such a thing as a Catholic novel? A novel whose didactic purpose is to explicate Catholic dogma? God, what a tedious business that would be. Speaking as a lapsed Catholic.

    1. I'd think so. If, for example you were to write about a family of Catholics in Germany hiding Jews because they feel its a religious vocation, I'd think that would qualify. (Corrie Ten Boom?)

      I don't think the purpose of the story has to be the dogma, but I think there should be at least a specific bit of Catholic theology expressed somewhere in the story. But like all religious writing, the line between hammering the reader over the head with preaching and writing believable religious characters can be hard to see for the author, and he/she needs to be mindful of it.

  6. There is so much to appreciate in this novel that if you are a fan of literary fiction, mystery, history, theology and/or love stories you will find it satisfying. I can claim all of the above so I felt as if the book were written to my tastes. I'm fifty and found it refreshing to read about characters in my own age bracket - characters that, although they are dealing with new challenges, have enough emotional depth and experience to guide them. The love story between mature adults is every bit as romantic, if not more so, than those between young lovers. The theological history offered is interesting, informative and pertinent to the story without pushing any religious agenda on the reader at all. The mystery that binds the story from the start isn't front-page-news material but profoundly mystical in nature. There are enough surprises and unexpected twists to classify this novel as a page turner.