Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

So a couple of years ago I read Wounded by Claudia Mair Burney, it was the first and possibly the most successful Faith and Fiction Round Table I hosted. I was really impressed by the book, and it's one that's stuck with me through time. Burney did a great job raising a lot of questions just..I don't know giving me a lot of food for thought about faith and how I judge people, the nature and purpose of suffering, etc. She referenced the book Mariette in Ecstasy quite a bit and this year Hannah put it on my challenge list. It's a slender little novel so I decided to make time for it before the end of the year. I'm glad I did because whatever I don't finish this year is carrying over to next year and I've read four pretty heavy books in a row so I think my next book will be a light Christmas romantic comedy tbh!

Mariette in Ecstasy begins on the day Mariette Baptiste will say her vows and join Our Lady of the Sorrows. There are..things to note, for example the prioress is her older sister and even though Mariette feels she has been called to this life from a young age, there is also the slight implication that her sister was a huge influence on her. But Mariette is beautiful and almost immediately well liked by the nuns. She is completely and utterly devoted to God and longs for deeper communion with Him. She is sometimes caught simply praying to him in the middle of chores.

And eventually things start to happen, where Mariette believes indeed that she has been given a connection to the Lord himself. She finds herself with the wounds of the cross, bleeding from her hands and the blood gives off a perfumed scent. No one quite knows what to do with this, some believe she has in fact been blessed while others find themselves consumed with envy. Still others doubt her and think she's a fraud. The priest launches an investigation while at times they also punish her.

First of all, Hansen's language is really beautiful. He creates a sense of place really well, I could imagine the convent and the feel of the days, the work they did, the natural beauty and the simplicity that surrounded them. I have to admit I had a little bit of trouble keeping all of the characters straight, as there are quite a few. And Hansen uses interesting means to tell the story, going through the religious calendar, sometimes using only a paragraph for a glimpse of a scene, sometimes pulling the scene out longer. The interviews done to determine the legitimacy of Mariette's stigmata are interspersed throughout the story, almost at times, to give you a first person perspective on a given scene.

He plants the idea early in the narrative that perhaps Mariette is not quite sane, but it's so brief. The idea of course comes out later on as they try to decide if she is in fact communicating with the Lord or not. Also at times when she goes into ecstasy she describes an almost sexual experience that disturbs those with her. And there's another incident where it's almost as if she's being raped by an evil spirit. I have to admit all of this made me really uncomfortable and it seems there's nothing like the miraculous to make my own doubts flare. So in that regard the book is really successful..I mean I really had to wonder what I would think if this was something I experienced...someone I loved and respected going through something like this. What would I think? Would I believe? Or would I doubt? And what would that do ultimately to my relationship with them? My relationship with God?

And it's all kind of weird, because there's this part of me that really identified with Mariette's yearning for communion with God, probably, to my own shame, more in the past, for that deep really mystical experience. I've always been intrigued by Christian mystics and often wondered if I was settling for far less in my own spiritual life (are you all really weirded out now?). But I lack the devotion they have, the sacrifices they are willing to make. Even so I understand the appeal. Yet AT THE VERY SAME TIME, I have SO MANY DOUBTS.

And then, of course, there's the inevitable comparison to Wounded. (which, lol, it probably usually works the other way where people were comparing Wounded to Mariette, but WHATEVER) I couldn't help but compare them while I read. I have to admit I didn't emotionally connect with Mariette in Ecstasy like I did with Wounded. I didn't find it nearly as thought provoking or edgy in the questions it was blatantly asking (though from reading reviews I think maybe it's just that they were more subtle) and I felt like the relationship to suffering wasn't clearly drawn. And it could partly be that Mariette in Ecstasy was written to appeal to a broad audience while Wounded was written for those that already unquestionably believe Christianity and are familiar with church life.

Even so I'm really glad to have read Mariette in Ecstasy and I think it's a book that will reward rereading. Its language is beautiful, its ideas haunting, and the world within the pages is fully realized. During one of her ecstasies when they are all looking at Mariette she is described, "Mariette stares up into nothingness like a teenaged girl newly intrigued with herself, or as if she has finally heard her heart and is being haunted by it." I thought that line was gorgeous.

Rating: 4.5/5
Things You Might Want to Know: All about religion, God, etc. but not at all in any way shape or form preachy or Christian fiction
Source of Book: paperbackswap
Publisher: Harper Perennial


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