I bring you a book with a pretty uncommon plot and setting, by an author I’ve grown a fan of, thanks to Rosie’s group.
In This Small Spot by Caren J. Werlinger
WINNER – 2014 Golden Crown Literary Society Best Dramatic Fiction
“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”
In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.
About the author:
Bestselling author Caren Werlinger published her first award-winning novel, Looking Through Windows, in 2008. Since then, she has published sixteen more novels, winning several more awards, including the 2021 Alice B medal. Influenced by a diverse array of authors, including Rumer Godden, J.R.R. Tolkein, Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Willa Cather and the Brontë sisters, Caren writes literary fiction that features the struggles and joys of characters readers can identify with. Her stories cover a wide range of genres: historical fiction, contemporary drama, and fantasy, including the award-winning Dragonmage Saga, a fantasy trilogy set in ancient Ireland. She has lived in Virginia for thirty years where she practices physical therapy, teaches anatomy, and lives with her wife and their canine fur-children.
Check out her blog: http://cjwerlinger.wordpress.com
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
This is the fourth of Werlinger’s novels I read, and although the setting and the central theme of the story is quite different from that of the others, I also enjoyed it immensely, and I’m sure it won’t be the last (if I can help it).
This is not a new novel, but the author is due to publish a companion novel (I don’t know much about it, so I’m not sure if it’s a sequel, a prequel, or something else) in the next couple of months and wanted to remind her readers of it, and also, hopefully, get new readers to discover it.
The description provides enough information for readers to get a good sense of what is to come, but I’ll add a few of my thoughts. Michelle (Mickey), the main character, is a successful surgeon, who also teaches at an important medical school, and who often worked with cancer sufferers. She had lived for many years with her partner, Alice, who had died from cancer a few years back by the time we meet her in the novel. She doesn’t suddenly decide to leave everything and go to the convent, as some of her friends and people who knew her might think, as we learn that she had thought about it when she was much younger, just out of high school, but decided to go to university, study, and then met her partner. The book is narrated in the third person, mostly from Mickey’s point of view, although there are some chapters where the third person becomes that of an outside observer with some moments of insight into one of the characters’ minds (I’m being a bit cryptic, but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers). The novel initially alternates chapters from the now of the action (from the time when Mickey is setting off to go enter the convent), with others from her life before that, offering us an insight into her relationship with Alice, her interaction with others, and also Alice’s illness and its aftermath. There is no confusion between the different chapters and timelines, and the format works well to offer us a good understanding of what Mickey’s life had been like before and how she got to the convent, while also learning about convent life and about the process of her integration into the religious community.
Faith, vocation, and spirituality play an important part in the novel, as you can easily imagine, but you don’t need to practise Roman Catholicism or be particularly religious to enjoy the book. Anybody who has wondered about the meaning of life or spiritual matters would find much to identify with in the pages of this book. This novel is about the journey of a particular woman struggling with grief, trying to recover her zest for life, and to discover what is really important for her. Her life outside was full of stress and pressures, but although life in a convent is completely different, it is not without its challenges, and she discovers that you cannot hide from yourself, and you cannot put off dealing with things and people forever, however difficult and painful they might be. And, a convent is not a place where everybody is perfect, tolerant, and patient either, as she soon finds out. There is prejudice, pettiness, likes and dislikes, and the enclosed atmosphere and the fact that you are forced to live together with people you might not have chosen makes it all the harder, amplifying annoyances that you might, otherwise, have easily dismissed. But, there are some wonderful moments, and the novel is also full of joy, beauty, inspiration, and a few laughs.
We get to know Mickey quite well, and although I’ve read that some reviewers disliked her, that was not my case. Having worked as a doctor and left Medicine as well, I felt particularly drawn to her, perhaps because I was aware of some of the challenges of the profession, and although she is far from perfect and can be annoying at times, she does try to do what she thinks is right, even when it is not what might come naturally or make her happy. She is far from humble and doesn’t always ask for help when she should, but she tries her best, and she has a sense of humour, and is always ready to help others, even those she doesn’t particularly like. She discovers that there are plenty of things she has to deal with before she can truly move on, and she struggles with her feelings and emotions. I did find her a believable character, and I got to feel for her, as I did for the rest of the convent. We don’t get to know all the other characters as well, but I grew fond of the convent and its inhabitants, as I did of Mickey’s brother, of Alice’s sister, and of some of the other characters who make brief appearances. I particularly enjoyed the way the author creates a powerful picture of the abbey and its inhabitants, and I loved the sense of community, the different roles and personalities, and the way they all find a place and become a part of something bigger.
The writing is beautiful, as I have come to expect from this writer, and although this is not a page-turner in the traditional sense (much of what happens is every day and not the stuff of adventure books or thrillers), it flows well, and it has a sense of rhythm to go with the seasons and with the character’s experiences. There are melodramatic moments as well, when life puts not only Mickey but others also, to the test. And don’t expect everything to go smoothly and a traditional happy ending. This is not a fairy tale, and I have seen that some readers felt disappointed when they got to the ending. No, this is not the typical lesbian romance novel, H.E.A and all. Tears also make an appearance. To be fair to Werlinger, though, even if we might have missed the clues, what happens is not surprising or totally unexpected. And, personally, I thought the ending was more than appropriate and quite optimistic, in a bitter-sweet way.
I always advise possible readers to check a sample of the book, if they can, to decide if the writing style suits them, and that applies here as well. I highlighted a lot of sentences and paragraphs that seemed particularly beautiful to me and/or gave me pause, and I have chosen a few to give you an idea of what to expect.
But remember that an abbey is not a place where you can run from yourself. Quite the contrary. Having stripped away the disguises and distractions of the outside world: clothes, career, material possessions, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.
Prayer wasn’t dependent upon the skill of the person offering the prayer; it wasn’t limited geographically or physically; it wasn’t even limited by reality or any of the laws of science.
The two people in our lives who could never be married gave us the best example of how to build a life together as completely equal partners.
Sometimes God knocks us off our feet with something dramatic, but, in my experience, more often, he simply whispers and waits for us to be quiet enough to hear.
Any warnings? Well, this is not a “clean” novel, and although there is no violence, there are some hard scenes to do with injuries and sickness and the odd swear word. There are also some mild lesbian sex scenes (nothing full-blown or explicit), and there is much talk about grief, illness, and death of loved ones, so those who could be badly affected by these topics might want to skip it or wait until they feel they are in a better place. As I have said, I found it quite hopeful and inspiring, so I wouldn’t discount it just because of the storyline, either.
I recommend this novel to people who enjoy beautiful writing, reading about enclosed communities (particularly of women), those who might feel curious about monastic life (I’ve always been), and anybody interested in characters going through major changes and crises in their lives. The author explains in her acknowledgments that she had thought about becoming a nun when she was younger, had researched the topic at the time, and also had family connections in the church, so this is a book born of her personal search as well as a work of fiction. It works wonderfully on both counts, and I can’t wait for her next book.
Thanks to the author, to Rosie and her whole team for their support, and to all of you for reading, liking, sharing… Stay safe, and keep smiling!