It's 1999 in Thebes, New York. When Leontina Scales is knocked on the head by a falling statue of the Virgin Mary while pilfering from the refrigerator of the Catholic church, things get a little out of control. For Leontina, a single mother who is raising three wayward teenagers, the bump on the noggin is just enough to throw her over the edge. Soon she begins to act very strange indeed, speaking in tongues and reverting back to a simpler time in her life. Meanwhile, Jeremy, the parish choir director, is trying to assemble a group of friends for a shot at the musical big time, but is finding obstacles creeping up along the way. Jeremy is a Catholic of a very different variety, and along with his friends is trying to keep a lid on his often misunderstood lifestyle. Added into the mix is an ancient group of nuns that Jeremy and his singing group befriend and one very antagonistic and foul-mouthed teenage girl, making the little town of Thebes, New York on the cusp of Y2K a very strange place indeed.
I've read quite a few of Magiure's books and was eager to get the chance to read this one as well. I thought that Wicked was pretty darn incredible, and though I liked it's sequels a little less ferociously, I think Maguire has a really interesting talent for taking fairy tales and twisting them into thrilling and novel new permutations. So when I started this book, I was a tad confused. This book was really a departure for Maguire, as not only was it a different genre, the inclusion of so much humor was also different for him. While it took me some time to adjust, I ended up really enjoying this book despite my preconceived notions about it.
This book was really thought-provoking in the ways it examined the fragile bonds that hold a community together. There was a small town feel to the story and as the book progressed, there was a great feeling of peeking into the microcosm of small town America. Part of the story was about two opposing churches, and while I wouldn't call it a rivalry exactly, there were some definite undercurrents of us versus them that were gradually hurdled as the narrative moved forward. Both church leaders had strong ties to the community, albeit in very different ways, and both of them found themselves coming to Leontina's aid in some pretty surprising ways. One of the things I found most interesting was the tentative relationship that began to develop between Jeremy's group and the nuns. They were as different as different could be but they seemed to find common ground to put aside the bonds of convention and be supportive of one another in a few unexpected and touching demonstrations of unity.
I liked that Maguire found the humor in religion and its trappings without becoming derisive and mocking. Yes, the churches had their problems, and yes, there was a lot to poke fun at, but Maguire handled his subjects with a great deal of respect. A lot of the religious stereotypes were represented in relief but there wasn't a feeling of moral judgement hanging over the story like a pall. There was a certain amount of reverence attached to these things and Maguire's attitude towards it all was mildly surprising and pleasing. In my opinion, it's hard to write about religion and spirituality without becoming either too fawning or too dismissive, but Maguire seems to hit the right note, making his characters lovable but flawed.
Though this was a rather comedic book, there were a lot of more somber and reflective aspects to the story, particularly the sections dealing with spiritual confusion and the plight of gay individuals afflicted with disease. The way Maguire mixed these mediums was done with a grace and compassion that I haven't seen in his other writing. These sections weren't depressing or maudlin but rather more matter-of-fact and thoughtful. I'm always surprised when a favorite author manages to tread sensitive new ground with aplomb and was glad to see that Maguire didn't try to cheapen the emotion of his story by becoming flippant and trite. A few revelations had me a little misty eyed at times, and though the emotion could run high, there wasn't a sense of over dramatization in the more somber reflections of his characters.
This book was populated by a lot of unusual characters, which is something I always enjoy when it's done well. From the morally conflicted pastor to the wizened and sarcastic nuns to the very strange Leontina Scales herself, Maguire did a wonderful job of making this cast of characters colorful and surprisingly fresh. The characters were not at all what I had been expecting and it added another whole level of unpredictability to this story. Not all of these characters were likable; some were a little off-putting or even repugnant, but like those that were better loved, they were drawn with complexity and dimension that made them easy to relate to and understand.
As I mentioned before, this book is a departure for Maguire, but although it was different than what I had been expecting, I found it to be a really involving read. Readers that appreciate a good dose of humor inside a dramatic framework would really love this book and those who don't mind reading about the lighter side of spirituality would probably also have fun with it. After seeing what Maguire can do when he steps out of his box, I'm eager to see what he has in store for his readers. This book was unexpectedly successful with me, as I think it would be for a lot of others, so I think it might be something to take a chance on.
About the Author|
Gregory Maguire is the bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror, Mirror, Matchless, Making Mischief, and the Wicked Years series that includes A Lion Among Men, Son of a Witch, and Wicked, now a beloved classic and the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Visit Maguire at his website.
|A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.