Ambitious first novel examines the power of faith—and its dangers.
Chester, a former English Lit Ph.D. with mental problems, is a homeless person in a town that’s probably Boulder. One morning, he has a vision that Francesca, a 14-year-old girl who helps serve the homeless free meals at her neighbor Ronnie’s café, is the Holy Virgin. Chester decides that he is to be her protector. Francesca, beautiful but going through a troubled patch of adolescence since her parents’ divorce, is in fact afraid she might be pregnant, although the sexual encounter she had remains ambiguous. After an incident at the café, word spreads among the homeless that Francesca has holy healing powers. Her distracted mother Anne, a paleobotanist with no use for the leap of faith required for religious belief, conveniently leaves town for a dig while Francesca, staying with Ronnie, becomes increasingly known as a miracle worker. By the time Anne returns, the cult around Francesca has become a media event, inflamed by Ronnie’s sister Rae, a professional seeker (we all know the type), and Francesca’s friend Sid, who is secretly selling Francesca-relics. Anne is slow to realize that Francesca has in fact begun to believe in her own powers, to enjoy the role of Virgin thrust upon her, and to act as a pretty credible miracle worker. People believe they are changed after contact with her. By setting up the possibility of miracles occurring while also leaving a trail of rational explanation, Hallowell challenges the reader to think in new ways about how belief evolves and how it affects actions. In the end, Francesca is not pregnant and, at a crucial moment, is unable to heal. But the question lingers whether her temporary divinity was real to those who believed.
Though her story and characters are both sometimes labored and her writing stilted, there’s a lot to admire in the complexity of the issues Hallowell raises—and in her lack of easy answers.