Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
I’ve had this on my shelf for quite some time, given to me by someone, maybe my mom. Not terribly excited to read it though, from what I’d heard about it. It was better in many ways than I expected, and worse. At times McCourt’s story feels like bad melodrama, stagey Irishmen staggering around doing exactly what stereotypical Irishmen are supposed to do. At times there is a genuine humor and pathos that made me laugh and tugged at my heart. There was one beautiful moment of redemption when Frank finds a sympathetic Franciscan priest who listens to his confession and offers him perhaps his only real taste of a loving God’s infinite mercy in marked contrast to the heavily Jansenist priests who chase him from the confessionals roaring that there is no forgiveness for sexual immorality. But the book ends on a sour note, much too reminiscent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as young Frank emancipates himself from grinding poverty and traditional Irish Catholic morality, embracing a cheap American “freedom” that is really slavery to sin. On the one hand, I do have a profound sympathy for both Joyce and McCourt, and for all the Irish really, subject to poor catechesis and a warped Catholicism that makes sexual sin the unforgivable sin that puts a sinner beyond all hope of God’s love and mercy. (A wonderful contrast is Rumer Godden’s novel Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy that stars a reformed prostitute as a French nun.) On the other hand, I have little patience for their juvenile rebellion that embraces sexual licentiousness.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
Mom left this behind when she visited in November, with a mixed review. I’m in complete agreement with her assessment. On one level I enjoyed this coming of age story set against the backdrop of racial tensions in 1964 South Carolina and the Civil Rights Act. I wasn’t sure where the story was going, refreshingly not predictable, and I found the character sympathetic. But the treatment of the Virgin Mary, a major thread in the novel that was meant to be uplifting, left a sour taste in my mouth.
At first I was warmly intrigued by the image of a black Madonna and child that Lily finds among her mother’s things. It leads her to a beekeeper who uses the image of the black Madonna on the labels of her jars of honey. And I rather liked the masthead figure of a woman that slaves adopted and called Our Lady of Chains. She rather reminds me of Mary Star of the Sea. The women kneel before her every night and say the rosary. But soon their spirituality is revealed to be less Catholic as they embroider their own rituals. At the conclusion of the novel, August the beekeeper tells Lily that Mary is her mother and will be with her even though her own human mother has failed her. So far so good. Then she says, “Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you,” and, “Whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love.” In other words, Mary is what the editor who composed the reader’s guide calls the “longing for the universal feminine divine.” But of course the Virgin Mary is not the universal feminine divine,” she’s the human Mother of God. Immaculate, blessed among women, Queen of Heaven, yes; but not a goddess and not some spirit of feminine empowerment. The bad theology that smacked too much of Dan Brown that, as I said, sort of soured the end of the novel for me.
A work of art is good insofar as it depicts truth, goodness and beauty accurately. Mary in this novel is beautiful and good but she is not true. Mary is not some divine feminine power in every woman. She was a woman who lived in Nazareth about two thousand years ago. She conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to a son named Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. She watched her son, the Son of God, the third person of the Holy Trinity, die on a cross in Jerusalem and was witness to his resurrection and ascension into heaven. At the end of her life she was assumed bodily into heaven and is now there, Queen of Heaven. She is not some power within but a real person, out there. She is, however, an image of what every woman is called to be: the perfect disciple of her divine Son, the perfect servant of God, the most pure and blessed woman who ever has lived. And she is, as the novel says, a mother for each of us, a perfect mother who will love us and intercede for us and guide us when our own human mothers fail, as they are bound to do because they are flawed, imperfect human beings.
The novel tells some partial truths about Mary; but then in the end it loses sight of who Mary is and makes her something she is not and thus, knowingly or not, tells a lie. As Mary is a major thread in the novel, that distortion of the truth colors the entire book. It is not a bad novel, but it is flawed.