MOTHERHOUSE by Jeanine Hathaway


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A nun's story that, billed as a first novel, reacts more like a memoir--deeply contemplative and as awkwardly plotted as real life. Jeanine, the oldest of nine children in a working-class Chicago family, has decided to enter the Dominican Order after her graduation from high school. The year is 1963. Her whole family piles into a borrowed push-button Rambler wagon to drive Jeanine across two states to arrive at the Motherhouse. Here, the girl immediately trades her blue dress for religious garb, including a short nylon veil. And here, too, she trades her old life for a new one. The details of these changes make up the novel's sharpest moments as Jeanine struggles to accommodate not only the wimple and the veil, but the new proscriptions on her emotional life as well: ""Friendliness was encouraged, friendship was not."" Nuns are inherently mysterious and powerful figures in our culture, and Hathaway understands this: ""My favorite part of the habit is the black cloak with its high collar, its swishing elegance....The cloak is theater; theater is one of the convent's greatest attractions."" If that's the case, then the big problem here is that we spend too much time backstage--we miss the real show. The story comes alive in those moments where Jeanine's two lives collide--like two wires touching, there's a jolt. But increasingly, even with significant events--such as her father's desertion of the family--we're insulated from the shock. There's hardly a flicker. Hathaway writes with grace and poetry. Her talent is clear, even as her message grows hazy. It's frustrating to he part of her audience here, struggling to find the drama from the wrong side of the curtain, the other side of the veil.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1993
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Hyperion