Two Good Reads: Faith by Jennifer Haigh and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

For most of my fiction reading I depend on the Centerville Public Library, which caters to Cape Cod’s summer and year-round populations. On a cold day one can count on a fire in the fireplace, the day’s newspapers and a friendly staff of (mostly) volunteers. The library is a popular gathering place throughout the year and gets so crowded the library has embarked on a major expansion program.

Last week I came upon a fairly new book by a Boston-area author, Jennifer Haigh. I’ve read and enjoyed her earlier works but the new one, Faith, really got to me.

It’s the story of the McGann family, most of whom live on the South Shore which is known locally as the “Irish Riviera.” The story is told by Sheila McGann, a fallen-away Catholic who lives in Baltimore but gets home often to care for her parents. Sheila’s brother Art is a Catholic priest, and a successful one by most measures. The story takes place in 2002 when the Boston Archdiocese is caught up in scandals surrounding clergy sexual abuse and the response of church leaders. Art, who is lonely and troubled soul, befriends the daughter of his housekeeper and her young son, who in effect become his family. Art is informed by the Archdiocese that the mother has claimed that Art abused her son. He is removed from his parish and continues a downward spiral. Sheila is determined to find out what happened and Faith tells that story and the family secrets that have long been suppressed.

It’s a good but sad and sobering story.

What impresses me most about the book is Jennifer Haigh’s theological sensitivity. Too often the treatment of religion in fiction is wooden and/or mean-spirited. Haigh seems to “get” the complexity of religious life in contemporary suburbia.

I’ve also just read Tom Perrotta’s new book, The Leftovers. This is a weird little story about a mid-Western town called Mapleton following the rapture that led to the sudden disappearance of dozens of the town’s neighbors. Perrotta imagines how families and a community might deal with such an event. We meet Kevin Garvey, the town’s mayor, and various families who have been affected by the “Sudden Departure. A peculiar new cult, the Guilty Remnant, has come into being in Mapleton. Its members are committed to a vow of silence and to smoke cigarettes whenever they appear in public. (I told you it is weird!)

I read this book somewhat reluctantly but was captivated by the story. Like Jennifer Haigh, Perrotta is a terrific writer. I suppose he would qualify as what Schleiermacher called a “cultured despiser” of religion but in The Leftovers, as in his earlier (and also provocative) book, The Abstinence Teacher, he honors the religious convictions and sensibilities of his subjects, even when they appear of the surface to be pretty bizarre.