Through the intertwined stories of a dying priest full of regrets, his caretaker sister still mourning her late husband, and her adult daughter torn between her family and a new man in her life, Rader’s poignant debut novel explores the emotional costs of seeking and sacrificing romantic love.
“The official story of the life of Father Paul Novak was that he was a more or less happy man who’d lived an admirable life of service.” But diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, the 70-year-old cleric is deeply troubled by his “thwarted heart.” At the Sister Bay, Wisconsin, cottage he rents with his sister, Britta, Paul daydreams (with a little help from morphine) of “the men that could have been” if only he had mustered the courage to leave the priesthood and come out as he once tried to do in the summer of 1990. He grieves for his first and only love, Luca Aurecchio, a young Italian he met in 1970 while studying in Rome. Britta does her best to pull her brother out of his depression, but she has her own problems, missing her husband, Don, who died three years ago, and estranged from her daughter, Maura, who wants to leave her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs, for the possibility of true love. Traveling to Rome on a final pilgrimage, Paul gradually reveals to his sister his heartbreaking secret. These are the strongest and most moving sections of the novel as Paul struggles between getting the love he so desperately desires and remaining closeted in the church. Maura’s parallel story is not quite so engrossing. She comes across as shallow and self-absorbed (she fails to reach out to her dying uncle), and her affair with a sexy older artist is a clichéd trope. As Maura acknowledges, hers is the “unoriginal tale of a straight woman realizing…that she needed a certain kind of love to feel whole.”
An insightful and compassionate family drama about desire, love, and the courage it takes to live a full life.