SAVING GRACE by Celia Gittelson


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The Pope runs away from the Vatican to find spiritual renewal among some poor villagers--in a sentimental comedy which exerts a modest initial charm but becomes increasingly tiresome as the stock situations and farcical contrivances mount up. II Papa here is handsome Leo XIV, a reluctant pontiff from the start and now, two years after ascension, a severely depressed fellow: he's beleaguered by petty duties, appalled by the Vatican's commercialism (the Church bank may go public, with US-style gifts for depositors!); he's tormented by erotic/blasphemous dreams; he doubts the usefulness of his work, fears for his faith, longs for solitude. So, worried about the Pope's sanity, his top aides grudgingly allow him to take a secret, unattended rest on his sister's farm (officially, he has influenza). But Leo has a greater escape in mind: he steals his brother-in-law's truck, some old clothes, drives south, and winds up in a desolate village--where he rents a room from comely widow Donna Lucia and poses (with implausible, unrecognized ease) as a traveling salesman. Thus, while the Vatican bigwigs and Deputy Commissioner Tuttobene start a two-pronged, hush-hush manhunt, the disguised Pope finds himself gaining energy, becoming involved with the villagers: he risks his life to rescue Donna Lucia's injured daughter, then prays over the comatose girl (whose recovery makes Leo a reluctant local saint); he guides an alienated priest back to service; he leads the community in refurbishing their neglected church. And, though Leo's erotic discomfort continues (with Donna L. for a focus), he's spiritually a new man at the close, voluntarily returning to the Vatican: ""What heavenly grace overflowed into the world!"" This rather limp and saccharine scenario--basically familiar from 1940s uplift films about hope (It's a Wonderful Life) or angels visiting among mortals--mixes poorly with the broader, wearying farce here: Tuttobene's helicopter hunt, coincidental crashes, lamebrain villager reactions, etc. And after the engaging opening chapters, first-novelist Gittelson comes up with barely a handful of relatively original comic touches (there's an amusing confession from a carnal animal-lover). All in all, then: mildly promising idea, lackluster (though never unpleasant) execution.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf