This is a dark book, about flawed psyches, crises of faith, and unhappy families. It tells the story of a nun, Mary Agnes Adelli, who teaches at a Catholic boarding school in Illinois. One of the students under her charge is a rebellious girl named Helene, who feels abandoned by her father, a doctor who is traveling in Europe.
Helene repeatedly and flagrantly violates the rules of the school, coming into conflict with other students and Mother Adelli herself. Mother Adelli is soft-hearted by nature, and so is ill-suited to manage the student’s behavior, and given little support from her superiors.
Problems escalate, ultimately to the level of tragedy, and this brings Mother Adelli to confront her beliefs, as well as unexamined pain from her own troubled childhood.
The prose is beautiful, with gorgeous descriptions of bleak Midwestern landscapes in what seems to be a world of eternal autumn and winter. The characters struggle with complicated emotions, and for the most part, their inner thoughts are complex and believable.
Technically, there is almost nothing to complain about with this book. One or two very minor typos (well below the average number for an indie book) and a few times, the POV shifted a bit suddenly, but besides that, it was about as beautifully-written a work of literary fiction as I can imagine.
Now, I know I mentioned it already, but I want to hammer the point home: this book is very gloomy. Not only in subject matter, but in tone, in style, in pretty much every way a book can be. It felt as if events were rigged by the cosmos themselves to maximize anguish for the characters.
I haven’t read a book like this for a long time, but The Calling of Mother Adelli reminded me of the time I read a bunch of Thomas Hardy novels, one after another. Mother Adelli is like a later Hardy novel—think Tess of the D’Urbervilles or especially Jude the Obscure. Beautiful descriptions of bleak landscapes, characters struggling with trauma, grief, and the expectations family, society, and religion have placed upon them—all the things that make a novel Hardy-esque are here.
And some of the same problems I had with Hardy are present as well: in such a grim atmosphere, it was hard for me to find any character to root for. Adelli is sympathetic, but in a way that made me pity her for the misfortune caused by her lapses in judgment, rather than truly wish for her to “succeed” at anything. Every other character was, to a greater or lesser extent, unlikable in some way.
To be clear, I wouldn’t say it should have been written differently. I think the point of the book is that all human beings have their flaws, and that sometimes these flaws interact with one another in a way that inevitably produces a violent disaster. (Reconciling this point with the existence of an omniscient, benevolent Creator is another matter, one which the characters also struggle with in the course of the book.)
This is probably not a book for everyone—it’s not a light read, it’s driven by characters rather than plot, and it touches on a number of controversial issues. I don’t want to give away too much, but let me say that while early on I began to expect the tragedy that ultimately occurs about halfway through, it was still quite disturbing to read.
But with all that said, it is certainly a worthwhile book. I made the comparison to Jude the Obscure for more than one reason, because like that novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli has many elements that make for a classic of literary fiction. The writing is gorgeous, and the author clearly took great pains to craft every scene vividly.
This book was brought to my attention by Mark Paxson. On his blog, he cataloged how he aided Keithley’s efforts to get the book independently published after no publisher would take it. And this is why I recommend that you consider reading it: because this book is clearly the labor of someone who spent a great deal of time honing her skill as a writer—a story we would not have the chance to read, if the decision were left solely to publishing companies. It may not be for everyone, but better that we each have the choice to decide for ourselves, because it is most definitely for some of us.