A brooding novella of love, evil and tragedy set in the early 1970s within the religious community of a small town outside Chicago.
Dunning’s debut centers on Sister Anthony and Father Francis, who aren’t your average nun and priest. The story begins with a sexual encounter—neither their first nor last—beneath an old oak tree by the river. Anthony pines for the privileges she’s heard other nuns have post–Vatican II, and Francis is expecting an unwelcome houseguest in Bishop Burns, an old teacher avoiding his own sexual indiscretions. It’s during one of their meetings beneath the tree that Anthony and Francis glimpse a hysterical man struggling to carry a large, unwieldy bundle to the river. Soon they find themselves caught up in the bishop’s latest misadventure. Readers won’t be surprised at the ensuing blackmail and the eventual destruction of the small church community. The author is a powerful writer, despite occasional lapses in consistency and usage. The setting is engaging, the descriptions lovely and the dialogue sharp, but the characters aren’t fully developed. It’s hard to root for, or even like, Francis and Anthony, while the bishop—a genial but flawed man—devolves into a stereotypical monster whose actions sometimes don’t make sense. Only Mother Agnes—whom the sisters refer to as a “preening peacock” and “Hitler in a Habit”—is a happy surprise, showing a love and consideration for others that have never been granted to her. From a slow-moving but thoughtful beginning, the story careens to a conclusion that’s melodramatic and almost unbelievable; Dunning would do well to reconsider what makes the most sense in a carefully constructed plotline.
Short and compelling, Dunning’s book is an explosion of passion that will satisfy many, but people of faith, particularly Catholics, may find it too uncomfortable to read for pleasure.