The Essence of the Thing

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Beautifully written. Told largely in dialogue and without a lot of "plot" the novel recounts the life of Nicola once her boyfriend of six years suddenly reveals that he doesn't love her and that "It's no good."

Unlike many modern novels, it turns out that Nicola does love Jonathan--sincerely, completely, desperately, and unreservedly. She regards his revelation and request to her as the beginning of a descent into Hell. (A descent that is stemmed in part by the arrival of Easter.)

What I love so much about the book is the way that St. John weaves her themes so carefully and seamlessly into the book. Almost no reviewer has mentioned the incredibly strong Catholic tide that drives this book along. For example the transformation from mourning and despair to something approaching a life takes place as Nicola is left alone over a weekend.

[Warning: some minor "spoilers" below--I don't think they'll spoil your enjoyment of the story--but they do reveal some turns in the tail]

But the thing alluded to and which is very cleverly embedded into the fabric of the story is the real threat of sterility in marriage or a relationship. Everything in the story seems to turn on the pin of Nicola telling Jonathan that she will have to go off the pill for a length of time during a "resting" phase. This seems to be the "event" that causes Jonathan to think their relationship through. This incident is mentioned several times and is interestingly reflected in the dialogue of another couple for whom the man wishes to have another "sprog" and whose wife turns him down. St. John seems to say that this deliberate barrenness dictates the barrenness of real life-scapes. An amazing feat for a woman trying to write a book that will appeal to a wide variety of readers in the secular world today.

I'm sure there are other subtle strains, that were there enough time I could tease out; however, what I can say is that there are moments that are laugh-out-loud funny in a book that is among the saddest (not most depressing, merely sad) that I have ever read. The perfect pitch capture of the psychology of the relationship leads to a denouement that is heart-breaking and exactly perfect for the book.

St. John stands much closer, much more lovingly near her characters, but her style and prose does seem to suggest that of Muriel Spark. I have to say though, that this book moved me far more than any of Spark's and I find it not a little annoying that the author has, so far as I can tell, only four books to her name. (And one of those may belong to another Madeleine St. John, I can't say for certain.)

In sum--most highly recommended--but be prepared for the desolate sadness that pervades much of the story, even when there are some amusing passages.

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I hadn't heard of the book or the author but it does sound intriguing. Thanks for the review. It's going on my list.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 8, 2006 8:39 PM.

Salvation According to Nicola and Susannah was the previous entry in this blog.

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