Poet and novelist Larsen (The White, 2002) recalls the years she spent in a Roman Catholic convent, and why she decided to leave.
It was 1960, just before Vatican II, when, at 19, Larsen entered the convent. Becoming a nun was the thing you did if you were a Catholic girl from Minnesota who didn’t think marriage looked all that great. And Larsen loved God; she wanted to give her life to Him. (“Why not dedicate yourself to Him as completely as you could? It was a cinch. Why didn’t millions of people do this every day,” the author remembers thinking.) Her portrait of the Iowa convent is loving and respectful. She eloquently describes its hushed silence; the young nuns’ lessons in walking correctly (just so, careful not to swing your arms too vigorously or wiggle your hips at all); the Gregorian chants that “loomed hugely in our lives”; the textbook instruction about sex, so the novices would know what they were giving up when they took the vow of chastity. Larsen decided to leave the order in 1965 because she had issues with the vow of obedience. In general, her superiors were fair, if stern; they did not order her to do mind-numbing make-work or insist she wear a hair shirt. But they did insist that she become an English teacher, and they didn’t always understand the poetry she wrote. She began to wonder if Mother Superior really did know best. Finally, she made the break, and her account of an older nun taking her to Marshall Field’s to buy a green knit suit for the occasion is priceless. A few minor flaws (Larsen sometimes overindulges in the oh-so-lofty second person) in an otherwise luminous account.
Lyrical, subtle memoir.