A minister tries to heal a spiritually depleted church and himself in this debut novel.
After his wife dies, Wesley Aames sheds his blue-chip job working for an engineering company and goes back to school to study theology. Three years later, he becomes the new minister of the New Covenant Church in Asheville, North Carolina. The church is bedeviled by financial problems, out of touch with modern technology, and vexed by a lack of purpose and confidence. In addition, the congregation remains divided over Aames’ selection as the new pastor, because many are concerned his lack of experience will hinder his leadership. Soon after Aames assumes his new role, Jamie Lee McFarland, a 15-year-old high school freshman and member of the church, tragically ends her own life. Her mother, Rosa Lee, seems chillingly indifferent to her death, and may even be partially responsible for it. The congregation demands her expulsion from the church, expressing this position even more vociferously after Rosa Lee signs a contract with a reality TV show that plans to take its cameras within New Covenant to film. Aames attempts to appease his flock while simultaneously wrestling with his own moral reservations about Rosa Lee’s behavior: “What bothers me the most is that I cannot find it in my heart to forgive Rosa Lee. Not her actions on the death of her daughter, not her lack of guilt or remorse, not her mercenary actions since her daughter’s death.” Andre deftly paints a portrait of spiritual crisis, and the ways in which moral judgment vitiates the call for merciful forgiveness. At its best, the story is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—a philosophically meditative anatomy of the pursuit of holiness amid pain. But Andre includes too many ancillary plots—Aames’ work at a suicide hotline, his conversations with a young basketball protégé, a controversy over a funeral for a gay man—that prove more distracting than narratively amplifying. The central plot remains a powerful one, though weighed down by competing ones—there’s simply too much crammed into these pages.
Sometimes profound and artful, this tale of spiritual redemption delivers too many narrative detours.