LAPSING by Jill Paton Walsh


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An unusual, fastidiously focused tale of a spiritual journey to disillusionment by a bright, deeply committed young Roman Catholic woman, a student at Oxford in pre-Vatican II 1950's. To young Tessa, of working-class origins and a lively intelligence, ""there was no conflict between being clever and Catholic."" Of a generation whose values and mores seemed fixed and stable (yet ""whose every ace would be trumped by those coming after""), Tessa is happy with the life of the mind and spirit, the latter nourished by membership in a ""cell"" of quietly devout Catholics, led by ""slight, red-haired and beautiful"" Father Theodore. But Theodore proves to be a man clawing against the rigors of his vocation; and luxuriantly sin-and-guilt-filled, he will confess his all-too-profane love for Tessa. Warm, generous, striving for Theo's happiness, Tessa offers a love without sin, a ""marriage of true minds."" Both tortured and bemused, Theo accepts his ""Beatrice,"" his ""worshipped platonic she."" Meanwhile, Tessa, ignorant of the power of sexual passion, marries earnest research don Ben--in her copybook Catholicism, a woman could become either a chaste nun or a ""corrupted"" mother of children, and Tessa would rather be good than happy. Tessa, Ben, and Theo form an impossible household until Theo dramatically burrows his way to worldly freedom, and to betrayal of selfless Tessa, who'll learn that in the scheme of things there are no fixed points--that she ""was no longer necessary in the world but accidental."" Yet at the close, now cast out by a loved one and the Church, Tessa knows that ""only the radiant vision of love is strong enough. . .to show us. . .the truth about another human soul""; and beyond ""the lovely and intricate shell"" of the Church, ""there ebbs and floods at every human limit the infinite water of the One True Sea."" With an endearingly spirited and eager-minded heroine and lively theological dialectic, an attractive version--with some acerbically solemn undertones--of a trial by conscience.

Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 1987
Publisher: St. Martin's