Reviewed by Anne-Sophie Olsen
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Alice McDermott is a writer uniquely aware of the intimate connection between the worldly and the transcendent. In her latest novel, she paints a portrait spanning three generations of twentieth century Brooklyn nuns and lay Catholics that is both moving and hopeful. Her story begins and ends with the tragedy of death, but in these bookending events and all the events in between, she masterfully illuminates the spiritually redemptive aspect of suffering and sacrifice. It is clear that mercy is at stake as her characters battle their anger, pride, and misgivings in attempts to make sense of a world entrenched in pain and sin. McDermott writes with a deep sympathy toward her characters, and with an appropriately feminine style that is gentle and insistent. Occasionally, she loses clarity of syntax in her efforts not to sound high brow, but these instances stand out only because the rest of her sentences are stellar. Overall, McDermott writes with an awareness of the redemptive hope that can be found even in “the dumb oblivion of the human race,” and allows this hope to be self-evident without ever giving us the cheap way out of a mindlessly happy ending.