A debut novel about a good-hearted pastor in a small Midwestern town.
“Our God is full of surprises,” says Father Del Carnation in Hanway’s straightforward, affecting debut novel, “and people are the most surprising creatures of all.” But as this novel opens, Father Del, an Episcopal pastor in the small, idyllic, but cloistered town of Exeter, is leading an unsurprising life. He has a settled parish and a contented routine, but he’s been a widower for three years, and his grown daughter seldom visits. Aside from the many challenges and satisfactions of his pastoral calling, he feels lonely. As he tells his grief counselor, “I live in three worlds, and I often wonder which one is the most real.” There’s the day-to-day world, in which his parishioners and a constantly shifting cast of strangers are forever asking him for favors or guidance; the spiritual world, in which he owes his primary duty to God; and the world of “unfulfilled longings.” Hanway does a low-key but very skillful job of bringing all three of these worlds to life. He dramatizes the day-to-day aspect with a detailed look at Father Del’s life as a community leader, and these passages have a warmth that’s similar to that found in J.F. Powers’ novels; he illustrates the spiritual with several of Father Del’s excellent Sunday sermons. But the pastor’s longings are most involving, as Father Del finds himself falling in love with Rachel, a single mother who’s just recently moved to town to live with her aunt. Hanway confidently plays out the unfolding relationship against the backdrop of Father Del’s professional duties; one subplot, for example, involving a gay teenager afraid of small-town intolerance, is particularly well-handled. The author also draws many other secondary characters with economic skill. From these fairly simple ingredients he crafts a story that’s heartwarming without being saccharine. It also avoids dealing with current religious controversies (“a kindness sparing both the reader and the writer,” Hanway wryly notes) in order to focus on the universal dynamics of human relationships.
A deceptively simple and moving novel about a pastor juggling professional responsibilities and a personal awakening.