Catullus, the confession box, a loaded gun and a muscle car punctuate a former teacher’s memories in a novel rich with life and strangely awkward.
Entering retirement after teaching Latin for 41 years in Illinois, Frances Godwin begins to write of her past in what becomes a “spiritual autobiography” as she ponders love, regrets, losses and wrongs unredressed. Her 33-year marriage ends painfully as her husband slowly succumbs to lung cancer. She can’t forgive herself for not granting some of his wishes. She’s also troubled by her violence in dealing with her daughter’s abusive husband, then struggles with the Roman Catholic imperative to formally confess her sin. As happens to many of the main characters in the six previous novels by Hellenga (Snakewoman of Little Egypt, 2010, etc.), this Midwesterner goes to Italy, where she unburdens her soul to a priest whose reaction is laissez faire. Odder still are a meeting with her dead husband and her conversations with the voice of God. They’re presented as literal chats—comic, ironic, combative (the Almighty on Bill Clinton: “I told him to keep it in his pants”). There’s another sort of deity in the deus ex machina supplied by the valuable vintage car she left covered for years in her garage. With a woman as intelligent and well-grounded as Frances—a published translator of Catullus, an accomplished pianist, a lover of beauty, a seeker of life’s pith—these implausible elements raise unfortunate doubts about whether she should be taken seriously.
A resourceful storyteller, Hellenga presents a likable heroine confronting guilt, self-doubt and wavering faith, a woman strong enough to do just fine without divine intervention.