Saturday, August 18, 2012

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

At the height of the Boston Archdiocese's sexual abuse scandal, Father Arthur Breen is accused of molesting a young boy, the grandson of his housekeeper. Art's family responds in varied ways. His mother, once a somewhat wild girl but now settled into lace-curtain Catholicism, knows he was wrongly accused. (His stepfather is suffering from dementia and has no idea what is happening.) His half-sister Sheila McGann, who has moved to Philadelphia to escape from the family's web,  initially trusts Art and rushes back to Boston to help him. When he refuses to talk about his relationship with the boy and the boy's mother, but does share with her his own story of abuse by a priest, she begins to have doubts. Meanwhile, her brother Mike, the father of three young boys, afraid Art might be guilty, decides to investigate for himself. His WASP-y wife Abby is making his life miserable--never fond of Mike's family, she wants nothing more to do with them or the Catholic Church. To avoid spoilers that would affect your engagement with what is actually quite a suspenseful story, I won't say more about the plot.

Faith is told from Sheila's perspective (looking back from some point in the future when the matter has been resolved), but the story is equally hers, Art's, and Mike's. And each of their stories is painful as they struggle with the shortcomings of the institutions they have relied on (church and family) and their own limitations. The extent to which they have faith--in themselves, their loved ones, and in religion--and their inability to talk openly about past and present family dynamics shape their responses to Art's situation and the ways in which they interact with other characters.

Faith is a moving story with strong characterizations. Near the end of the book, Haigh relies a bit too much on a device that reveals information that otherwise would have been unknown to Sheila. But this weakness does not  undercut the novel's effective exploration of a family and a church in crisis. The audio version of the book is skilfully read by Therese Plummer.

Favorite passages:
I was newly divorced and wore the scars like jewelry.

Faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it's a choice.

It's true more often than we realize: each new love is built from the wreckage of those of the loves that came before. . . . We love those who fit the peculiar voids within us, our hollow wounds. We love to fill the spaces the old loves left behind.

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