Author: Jennifer Haigh
Release date: January 2012
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Literary fiction
Format: ARC (paperback)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 4 out of 5
Short and sweet: Uncover the history of a family with both painfully obvious and deeply hidden vices
Bonus points: Jennifer Haigh has been heralded as one of the greatest living contributors to literary fiction—superlatives usually reserved for men.
Hollywood sibling: “Doubt”
Late in life—long after their tumultuous childhoods—Art Breen and Sheila McGann became friends. As half-siblings, they were separated by more than a decade, and their different paths in life sometimes seemed like an unbridgeable gulf.
Art felt called to the priesthood at the early age of fourteen, and he experienced a modicum of success as a member of the clergy. When he meets Aidan, the oft-suppressed regrets of a life not lived clamor in Art, and he begins treating the eight-year-old boy as his own son. It’s a pretty convenient arrangement for Aidan’s young mother, Kathy, who is overwhelmed at the idea of carrying on a normal life on her own, without the support of a man or a narcotic.
Sheila, in stark contrast to Art, quickly lost the faith imposed on their family by a well-intentioned but domineering mother. She, too, hides years-old wounds of loneliness and lost love; but unlike Art, her biggest weakness may be that she’s never allowed herself to heal.
Mike, Sheila’s full sibling and Art’s half-brother, kept his faith; but his wife’s resentment of Catholicism threatens to rip apart his relationship—and the respectable life he’s finally found.
When Kathy accuses Art of molesting Aidan, however, everything that the three siblings believe is put to the test. The secrets that they discover—about each other and about themselves—yank them from the comfortable groove of adulthood and threaten to tear the family apart at its already-fragile seams.
In Faith, Jennifer Haigh reveals an entangled world of secrets and beliefs, pain and joy, identity and desire, and the enduring ties of family and faith. She tackles a difficult topic, but she does so with grace and aplomb.
In this book, Sheila, the narrator, attempts to put into words the story of her disgraced but beloved Brother Father. She pieces together the earth-shattering events that shook Art’s world, and she attempts to defend her own faith in Art—even when that faith wavers. “It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision,” Sheila writes. “In its most basic form, it is a choice.”
Having a somewhat distant, admittedly prejudiced narrator adds layers and complexity to the novel. But for me, the novel lacked some of the resonance and depth I was expecting–especially after the book received rave reviews by Greg (The New Dork Review of Books) and Carrie (nomadreader), among others.
Here is my central gripe: I know a fair amount about Catholicism, and I was raised in a deeply religious household. But I was baffled by the wedge the Church drove into Mike and Abby’s marriage. He’s Catholic and she’s Lutheran—so what? It’s all Christianity. Abby argues that the priesthood is inherently flawed—that such an unnatural lifestyle attracts pedophiles—which I’ve certainly heard before. But the position of Abby, the only non-Catholic main character, comes off as a weak reduction of non-Catholic views on the abuse scandals in the Church.
Perhaps I simply don’t feel the deep connection that Art, Sheila, and Mike have to Catholicism. This distance from their visceral emotions toward the Church was the only flat note of the book for me, but it was a point upon which the book hinged.
All told, however, Haigh crafted a compelling, timely story with flawed and deeply human characters; I’m looking forward to reading more from her.
Quote of Note:
We are too much ourselves, the people we have always been.
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