In this novel, set in 1948, a young nun teaching at a Catholic boarding school is challenged by her new pupil, who feels angry and abandoned.
Helene Rhenehan, 10, lost her mother to a car accident four years ago. Now, her surgeon father is going on a lecture tour in Italy and plans to leave her for six months at a girls’ boarding school run by the distinguished Convent of the Sacred Heart. Strongly believing in discipline and rules, the school mainly teaches girls who are, like Helene, “from Chicago’s Gold Coast or opulent suburbs.” Mother Mary Agnes Adelli, set to take her final vows the next year, is a favorite among the girls, and she hopes to win Helene over and help her be happy. But Helene’s rage at being left behind is boundless—more so as she stokes her anger to push down tears. Her unashamed, rule-breaking defiance soon has Mother Adelli in trouble with her superiors, who tell her to figure it out and enforce rules more harshly. This brings Mother Adelli into a terrible struggle with her conscience, balanced against her vow of obedience and need to control her students, who turn against her when Helene’s misbehavior brings punishments for the whole group. When something terrible happens, Mother Adelli must re-examine her whole life, especially the decisions that led her to give up a ballet scholarship to become a nun. Keithley (3/Chicago, 2013, etc.) brings the convent boarding school to life (you can almost smell the floor wax), with all its power struggles, affections and little routines. Characterizations are psychologically acute and well-rounded: Helene, for instance, is absolutely maddening while at the same time sympathetic, since no one is paying proper attention to her. The religious figures run the gamut, neither monotonically good nor bad. The reader’s knowledge of the huge changes to come in the church after Vatican II (not to mention present-day scandals) adds a layer of irony to the school’s emphasis on rules, order, conformity and discipline.
Powerful, dramatic and sensitive.