Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book Review: "Fire Sermon" by Jamie Quatro

When Garth Greenwell, whose book What Belongs To You (see my review), absolutely blew me away last year (it even ranked in the top five of the best books I read in 2016), took a pause from his social media hiatus to encourage people to read Jamie Quatro's Fire Sermon because of its absolute beauty, you can believe I listened.

I've got to say, Greenwell didn't steer me wrong. This book contains some of the most gorgeous prose I've read in some time, although the book as a whole didn't quite hit a home run for me. Still, there's so much raw emotion here—love, loss, hope, regret, fear, grief, wonder, and need—so it's really something.

"Was it something we carried in ourselves—something I sent out to you, and you sent out to me? Or did it exist independently, a potential fire hovering in the middle space between us, appearing only when we looked at one another? In which case, the second we stopped looking, the fire disappeared."

Maggie and Thomas met in college and married shortly after graduation. Maggie is a scholar, but is willing to put her educational pursuits on hold while she raises the couple's two children. She is happy (for the most part) doing her part to be the dutiful wife, devoted to her husband, her children, and God. While their relationship isn't perfect, she knows Thomas loves her passionately, and she feels secure in their life together.

When she resumes her teaching career, she begins a correspondence with James, a poet. At first, she is dazzled by his talent and marvels at their shared interest in theological writing, and their correspondence is professional and intellectual. But little by little, their communication transforms into something deeper, something that offers temptation, fantasy, perhaps even hope. When they finally meet, they are overcome by their feelings, and Maggie realizes all she has been missing her entire life.

Yet all too quickly, as strong as their feelings for each other run, they are consumed by guilt. Maggie must reconcile her devotion to God with her infidelity, her desire to throw everything away for James with the vows she took to love her husband until death do they part. They try to avoid seeing each other, even talking to one another, sticking solely to correspondence, but even that is tremendously difficult.

Will God forgive her? Should she confess to Thomas, even if that might jeopardize the family she holds so dear? Does she even deserve all that God gives her? Should she follow her heart, and stop caring about the consequences?

"(But would you leave a husband who, when you wake in the middle of the night, your body slick with sweat—dreaming you had to say goodbye to a man you slept with, once upon a time, but the man doesn't care, he has better things to do, he doesn't mind that he'll never see you again and the pain in your chest is so acute it forces you awake, gasping for air—this husband gets up to bring you a glass of water, then holds your hand across the mattress until you fall asleep? A man who, when your son brings home a girl who dropped out of high school and wants only to get married and have a kid, sits with her for an hour and talks about the benefits of higher education, offers to pay for her to take the GED and apply to colleges? Would you leave such a man? Or would you think: confess, repent, he is the one who should leave?)"

Fire Sermon examines one woman's struggles between the life she promised to live when she was 21 years old and the life she believes she so desperately wants, essentially a battle between duty and passion. At times powerful, at times quietly poignant, this is a book full of passion, conflict, need, and faith.

The book jumps between past and present, between Maggie's relationship with Thomas and her time with James, and also includes a great deal of theological conversation between Maggie and James, and Maggie's own conversations with God and an unidentified person. As someone who doesn't have much awareness of theology, while I understood the point that Quatro was making, I felt like those portions of the story slowed everything down and didn't quite work for me.

Maggie is a fascinating, fiery, flawed character, and Quatro draws her with such complexity. I was so taken by the storytelling and the language she used here, and I absolutely need to read her story collection now. Even though this book didn't quite knock me out, it's a story that really made me think, and I can't stop marveling at what a fantastic writer Quatro is.

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