Monday, March 10, 2014

Matters of faith

Ellen Gilchrist's first novel The Annunciation (1983) makes clear, from its title and cover illustration through the story itself, that it is a religious story, even though most of the time it is so irreligious it becomes easy to doubt the author really has matters of faith on her mind.

The novel spans 30 years, from the birth of Amanda McGamey's first child to the birth of her second. These are not easy years for Amanda, primarily because of the circumstances surrounding that first birth. She is just 14 when, after having sex with her cousin, Guy, she gives birth, then has her daughter taken away by nuns and put up for adoption. That experience condemns her to three decades of negative reaction: depression, strong drink, marriage to a man she doesn't love and constant thoughts about her daughter.

Amanda has little use for religion, especially the Catholic Church, yet she experiments with various Eastern faiths and practices, whatever happens to be faddish among the intelligentsia at the time. She is a smart, attractive, charismatic woman who starts putting her life together when she abandons New Orleans, where she suspects her daughter lives somewhere, for Fayetteville, Ark. (where Gilchrist herself lives) and wins an opportunity to translate a book of French poetry. Illustrative of her personality, Amanda tries to convince the publisher to change the original poems to match her translation, which she is convinced is superior.

Meanwhile, she begins a torrid romance with an unemployed man two decades younger. She keeps giving him money even though he always spends it on self-destructive binges.

Last Saturday night I heard Irish singer Cathie Ryan perform in St. Pete with the Florida Orchestra. She sang a song she said illustrated one of the guiding principles of her life: "Don't quit five minutes before the miracle." That line works for Amanda McGamey, too. For all her mistakes and disappointments, she doesn't quit. Her miracle is no virgin birth, whatever the novel's title and cover may suggest. It's 30 years too late for that. Yet smaller, more everyday miracles can be life-changing, too, and that's what Gilchrist gives her.

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