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Death & Dying

by John L'Heureux
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Jul 29th 2004

The Miracle

            The Miracle by John L'Heureux is a thought provoking and engrossing novel about death, dying, and faith.  The novel focuses on three Catholics (two priests and the rectory housekeeper) in a small seaside village in the aftermath of a possible miracle.

The Miracle is set in Boston and a small seaside village in New Hampshire during the 1970s. St Matthew's is a church known for its traditional views. Father Boyle has been there forever and its Irish working class parishioners have come to accept his drinking problem as "human weakness".  Then Father Paul LeBlanc was assigned to the parish as its new curate. He was too young, too politically controversial, and way too sinfully handsome, in other words he was causing waves. Enter Father Mackin, a 30-year seminary professor with rigid traditional views. It was not long before Father Paul, "the wild priest", found himself before Monsignor Ed Glynn for revaluation and reassignment. His new parish is Our Lady of Victories, a small seaside community in New Hampshire. The placement solved two problems for Monsignor Glynn: Father Paul was out of out of earshot of the vocal Catholics of Boston and his longtime friend, Father Tom Moriarty, bedridden and dying from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), would have his parish covered, a companion, and would be able to die where he felt comfortable. Father Tom is as opinionated as Father Paul, only unlike the younger priest Father Tom has lost his faith and has begun to doubt the existence of God. Also ion the household is Rose Perez, the rectory housekeeper. Rose is a 32-year old single mother whose sexual activity is a constant source of guilt for her. Another source of concern is her 16-years old daughter, Mandy. Mandy is equally sexually active, but also a drug user. She has found the answer for both her cravings in the arms of Jake Faria, motorcycle riding drug dealer. One morning, Rose's worst nightmare occurs. Jake calls Rose to come home because Mandy is sick. She arrives home to find Mandy dead from a drug overdose. That is when the "so called" miracle occurs. Although a number of witnesses including Jake, a doctor, her landlord (a former army medic), and Father Paul, verify Mandy's death, after Rose locks herself in the room with Mandy's body shrieking, praying, and begging the Virgin Mary for mercy, Mandy suddenly awakes startled at her mother's strange behavior. From this point on in the novel, the characters including Rose, Father Paul, Dr. Forbes, and Jake, struggle to understand the meaning of this apparent miracle and try to formulate their reaction to it. Finally, add into this mix Annaka Malley, a local beautiful with a scandalous past who begins attending the church in an attempt to discover whether she should go to law school or become a nun.

This book offers a refreshing escape from today's sex scandals in the Catholic Church to an earlier innocent era when a priest can get censored for his views on birth control and bussing, and women really worried about going to hell for having "impure" (that means "sexual" for you post-1960 babies) thoughts. The characters struggle and agonize over their sins. Finally, the characters also struggle with deeper religious issues like faith versus doubt, desire versus commitment, regret and hope, and logic versus the "incomprehensible". I feel setting the story in the 1970s was counterproductive to the impact of the novel. Doubt, fear, guilt, and hope in miracles are as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. Rose and Mandy are excellent representatives of the generational split over sexual issues. My other criticism is that the resolution of the conflicts should have lingered with equally slow angst and agony. The conclusion was too abrupt and thus unsatisfying, it was just, oh well, the end.

            John L'Heureux is an author and professor at Stanford University. He is the former Director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford (1993-94, 1996). He has received the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching (1981 & 1998). He has served as both a staff editor and contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly.  His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper's, and The New Yorker. He has written sixteen books of poetry and novels. His most recent novel is The Miracle (2002).

The Miracle by John L'Heureux will challenge the reader to face a number of the great questions of life including faith, death, and the inexplicable. It is gritty, but not crude. It is an excellent beach book that will keep the thinking reader pondering its issues late into the night. I recommend this book.

© 2004 Su Terry

 Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY.