THE GLASSY SEA by Marian Engel
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Though utterly unlike Engel's last short novel, the preposterous but rapturous Bear (1976), this new book shares with it a philosophical deliberation that's subtle and serious. Rita Heber was born Marguerite, then called Sister Mary Pelagia, then Peggy, then Mary Pelagia once more; and now Rita looks back on her 42 years of life, half of them spent as an on-and-off-again Anglican nun. Her Methodist girlhood in the Ontario hinterlands; an adolescent summer romance with a married man; college; studying English literature in tutorial with an Anglican cleric, who in turn introduces her to the Eglantine Sisters of London, Ontario, a small order of nuns ""run along plain and kindly lines."" Rita joins them, knowing without illusion that ""It wasn't faith that got me to the nunnery, it was taste."" But as the Eglantines age and begin dying off, the Bishop persuades Rita to abandon the sinking ship and return to the world. Her experiences there are unfortunate. She marries Asher Bowen, a dry, holy, bloodless Toronto lawyer; and together they sire a defective child that Asher can't stand to be with. Rita sees the child to an early grave, then is promptly and brutally divorced by Asher, who has picked up a young girlfriend and a Parliament seat in the meantime. Rita, paid off in life-long support from Asher, if only she stays far from Toronto, rents a house in the Maritimes and resigns herself to living out a failed-life in solitude. When importuned to start the Eglantines again, she demurs (her long letter to the Bishop is the main of this book, the recounting of her life), but finally she rethinks and accepts. Still ""more Martha than Mary,"" she'll make the nunnery a ""kind of hospice, a refuge from the war"" between men and women. Rita's sexual scars and Engel's feminist message come a little fast a little late, but these too, with everything else in Rita's voice, are strongly, movingly told. Even if it never quite convinces, the depth of feeling here is great and skillful.

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 1979
Publisher: St. Martin's