Fast-paced morality tale by the author of The Devil in the Dooryard (1986). John Venner—a religion professor having a hard time with his soul—teaches at a New Hampshire college near New Eden, the original colony of the celibate Shakers. Only a handful of old women remain of the colony, with one exception: a 23-year-old foundling named Sabbathday. Venner lusts for Sabbathday but also envies her purity, so he tries to become a Shaker himself—and wrestles, unsuccessfully, with celibacy. Sabbathday has had enough of purity and wants to embrace the world; she wants Venner to pursue her. Venner is driven to such antics because his ex-wife, with whom he once shared a more conventional religious (and sexual) ecstasy, has decided that her best means to conquer the flesh would be to go on MTV—a kind of electronic transubstantiation. She becomes Medusa (rather than Madonna), a modern spiritual tease. Venner's two women are good and evil, sort of, and, meanwhile, there's his tiny daughter Eve, in place for the new New Eden. Smith makes compelling speculations about the nature of purity and sexuality, Shaker lore, and Sabbathday's teenage diaries. He's a fine stylist, subtle, witty and learned. Trouble is, his women won't hold still: Sabbathday wants to turn what remains of the Shaker heritage into a corporation and become famous; Medusa retreats from fame and wants her husband back. Smith's conclusion- -that we may seek the divine but in the end are merely human—is a letdown, a mere intellectual exercise in this time of real trouble between the sexes. As religious argument, this fizzles. As a comic character study of weak John Venner, it's a delight to the end.
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