by Christine Sunderland
Reviewed by Francis Etheredge
The book opens with Jessica on a beautiful walk called The Fire Trail, when she hears a woman scream and then is seen by the man who has committed a brutal crime. This event overhangs the whole story until, at the end, it is resolved; and, therefore, one has the impression that this is almost a symbol of our cultural climate and our need for God: revealing both a definite fragility to human life and, at the same time, a resilience which comes from the Christian faith. Within this structure of suspense, lies the beginnings of courtship between Jessica and Zachary, two PhD students whose research informs the whole book: being about love and friendship and the religious foundations of learning in Berkeley and beyond. The story engaged me from the beginning and, at the same time as it does not dwell on tragedy yet it is there, like an unpredictable infection, bursting out in different places and eventually touches, very closely, the living present of the main characters of the story; indeed, the author traces a fine line between sketching the ways that women intensify their vulnerability to abuse without, exactly, either blaming them for what happens or excusing the men who assault them.
The author, an Anglican, has a definite affinity with Catholicism and at the same time a very positive grasp of a variety of Christian denominations and their contributions to culture. Her work is a rich combination of historical research and fictional characters. I was particularly impressed with the five Irish Catholic nuns whose journey entailed that they 'sailed from Kingstown (today Cobh [on the South Coast of Ireland]) to Liverpool to New York, then to Panama. They rode mules across the Isthmus, through mud and high rivers, following rocky trails along precipices, forging their way through dense tropical forests. They sailed up the coast ... and arrived in cold and damp San Francisco on Monday, November 13, 1854.' This contact with Irish history proved to be a good starting, talking point between my wife and I which, incidentally, allows the book to do what the author advances as a main contribution to marriage: to stimulate good conversation. Additionally, these intrepid Irish nuns, who struck out on a tremendous adventure, suggest that a modern mentality of "blaming the Church" for the underdevelopment of women may yet be a thesis to be challenged!
While the book was close to arguing that wives need to match their well-shaped husbands, that special diets and exercise are almost "mantric" elements of social life and that the references to the tragic outrages of terrorism suggest a cultural need to be more informed about Muslims who are sympathetic to other ways of life, it may be that these are a part of the "times" in which a well observed novel is set and indicates, as with any contemporary "moment" in time, that there is always more going on than can be fully explored at any one time.
All in all, as I say, a stimulating and engaging read.