Lewis’ debut novel, a coming-of-age story set in the shadow of the Roman Catholic Church, tells a story of deep-seated trauma and slow realizations.
In 1972, 14-year-old Anthony experiences a typical suburban upbringing in Milwaukee but feels out of place, ignored by his family, and distressed by questions about his own sexuality. His life takes a new direction, however, when he begins singing in the St. Veronica’s Youth Choir. It’s led by 21-year-old choir director Ron, who has strong opinions about music and an unorthodox take on Catholic doctrines. To young Anthony, Ron becomes “his Moses—the one who would lead him out of the wilderness of unobtainable connection to the promised land of independence.” Readers will likely anticipate what comes next: Ron molests Anthony, who feels that the action bestows a “terrifying honor.” It’s one of the novel’s strengths that it’s able to relate these moments in a way that’s both genuinely repulsive and compelling. Lewis is adept at giving voice to the uncertainty and alienation of adolescence. The novel particularly shines when it shows Anthony wrestling with his conflicted feelings about what he may have gained from his relationship with Ron, who believes that “[y]ou need to grab happiness where it can be found, without trying to define it as right or wrong and without trying to plan for the future.” As Anthony moves through college and into a successful marketing career in Chicago, he makes and breaks romantic relationships along the way; working with a therapist finally leads him to start drawing connections between his abuse and the failure of those relationships. Anthony eventually confronts his past directly in the late 1980s, but the power of this novel is less in the plot’s resolution than in Lewis’ careful attention to Anthony’s doubts and self-reflections as he navigates questions of faith and sexuality.
An engaging novel that elegantly traces the horrific, long-lasting effects of sexual abuse.