In Murphy’s debut novel, a primarily Catholic community in the Boston area struggles with diverging attitudes of faith in the aftermath of sex abuse scandals and family traumas.
Miracles, according to one of the many priests in this novel, are “one big headache for the Church.” Thus the community of Faneuil has many headaches in August 2002, when a giant, glowing image of the Virgin Mary appears on a wall at the local hospital. Like a faith-based Rorschach test, the image is interpreted by each viewer through a unique psychological prism. Hospital president Dr. Edward Cronin, a callous opportunist, gleefully folds this “miracle” into his morally corrupt plan to enrich himself with wealth and power by creating a shrine at the site. Yet the appearance of the mysterious image is surprisingly reassuring to some, including Dr. Tom Rowley, who has known no peace since his only child shot himself in December 1994, an event described in the book’s opening pages. As one character remarks in the book’s sad conclusion, “There’s no end to the Tommy Rowley tragedy.” Others are repulsed by what they assume to be a fake image, another example of religious manipulation, while still others find spiritual renewal by sharing the alleged miracle. In the action-filled week following the image’s appearance, several convoluted conspiracies and revenge plots are discovered, the Catholic hierarchy of Boston is upended, some families break apart and others draw closer together. All this compressed action comes at a cost. With dozens of characters listed in the book’s preface, pruning the cast would have created a more coherent narrative. The author is extremely well-versed in Catholic ritual and theology, which lends depth to the extensive discussions among the clergy. Although sexual abuse by priests is at the book’s heart, readers don’t witness revenge against those who committed the horrific crimes and those who covered it up. However, Murphy makes abundantly and painfully clear just how much suffering is felt by survivors and their families.
A thoughtful portrait of lives both destroyed and fortified by faith, though the reach of this ambitious debut novel ultimately exceeds its grasp.