A novel of nuanced emotional complexity, with a refreshing emphasis on character rather than on post-modern angst.
Once again McFarland (Prince Edward, 2004, etc.) anatomizes family dynamics, this time through three adult siblings. Morris Owen and his sister Ellen have tried to escape their southern past first by attending boarding school in New England and later by moving to the Cape. Their wayward younger sister Bonnie, who’s tried a number of occupations and failed at all of them, has recently moved back to the manse in Alabama after the death of the family’s patriarch. The novel begins with a letter Bonnie has sent to Morris and Ellen informing them that she’s recently—and somewhat secretively—married a charismatic evangelical preacher, Pastor (his given name) Vandorpe, so the two elder siblings set out to visit their old home and take the measure of Bonnie’s new husband. This is no skewer-the-fundamentalist screed, however, for Pastor is presented as a committed yet questioning Christian, both bewildered and bewitched by Morris’s homosexuality. While at one level Pastor wants to “save” Morris, at another he’s learning about his own patronizing attitudes. Morris is both learned and witty, and he has little tolerance for Pastor’s evangelism, but he’s also fascinated by Pastor’s genuineness and sincerity, values far removed from his own cynicism. Meanwhile, Bonnie is caught in the middle, sympathetic both to her siblings’ questioning (which begins to move her away from her new husband) and to Pastor’s deep faith (which she occasionally runs afoul of). The novel builds up to a mystical vision that Pastor experiences—an enigmatic visitation of Jesus—that tests everyone.
A work to be savored: McFarland knows how to put words together in guileful and bewitching ways.