The title refers both to the Goldberg Variations and to “variations” in the priestly life of Father Dominic at Our Lady of Fatima.
Dominic has to adjust to the first variation after the death of his predecessor, Father Carl, a much-loved and wise old priest. Father Carl had looked out for Dolores, a troubled 16-year-old, both free-spirited and erratic, but Dominic hasn’t the light and loving touch of Father Carl, who saw Dolores as “one of God’s special cases, given us to know Him better." Dominic is instead simply bewildered by her wild, irrational outbursts. Meanwhile, Our Lady of Fatima is meeting the fate of many an aging urban Catholic church and is threatened with the wrecking ball, a move supported by the bishop but heroically (and quixotically) resisted by Dominic, who tries to drum up support through a lively blog on the Internet. Posting his thoughts and sermons online opens him up to considerable vilification, however, for he finds that there’s a great deal of hostility out there, much of it directed toward priests. Another narrative thread involves James, a talented young pianist taught by Signora Rosa, a septuagenarian piano teacher who gives her protégé cryptic, ethereal instructions in his approach to music. She persuades James to start writing a “biography” of the Goldberg Variations, a piece he feels an almost mystic attraction to. The paths of James and Dominic cross when the pianist becomes choir director at Our Lady of Fatima, and the narrative is further complicated when Dominic becomes romantically involved with Signora Rosa’s daughter Andrea, a divorcée with a 10-year-old daughter.
Donatich manages to avoid clichés in what could have been another trendy defamation of the Catholic Church, for Father Dominic emerges as a fully fleshed character, both tormented and lost.