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Book Review : Lighter Side of Catholics in London

November 04, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Holy Mother by Gabrielle Donnelly (Atlantic Monthly Press: $7.95, paperback; 256 pages)

On Fridays, the members of the Our Lady of Sorrows Parish Society of St. Thomas Aquinas meet in a basement room near Soho Square to hear Mass, discuss a religious topic and have a drink or two before going home. All eight of them.

They are, in Gabrielle Donnelly's novel "Holy Mother," a precious remnant, gathered under the dynamic leadership of Father Bob Power to preserve the faith of their fathers while living sensibly contemporary lives in thoroughly contemporary London.

The fathers of all but one of them is Irish. The exception is English through and through, but he is a convert and a prig, besides. Donnelly has loaded her dice just a little to emphasize the isolation of Catholics in England.

Fearful Troublemaker

She has also pushed her clock back a bit. There is a decidedly pre-Graham Greene air to the scruples and arguments and rebellions among Father Bob's little flock. Still, in London's endless unfashionable miles of semi-attached brick houses, there has not to date been a single St. Graham's church put up. Nun and priest stories are very much around; so is guilt, and having it both ways, and having it neither way.

In any event, Donnelly has written a very likable story about the strains between a traditional faith and the need of half a dozen young people to take full part in a society that, to the degree it is not exclusively secular, is vestigially Protestant.

It is not a novel of ideas; if anything, it is a comedy of manners that, at least until its peculiar ending, does not take itself particularly seriously. Maureen, a teacher and fearful troublemaker; Alison, her up-market P.R. friend; Denis, a journalist and Irish comic; Geoffrey, a sober-sided parliamentary staff worker; Kate, a timid secretary; and Anne and Stephen, an alarmingly happy pair of newlyweds, lead their various and separate lives quite indistinguishable from those of other young Londoners in their social and professional milieus.

Their several Catholicisms and the strains they provide allow them--in their self-consciousness, their slight apartness and the conflicts they go through--to take on a certain seriousness and solidity. And this, in turn, allows them to be funny, aimless and disoriented without blowing away altogether. They continue to matter.

Some matter more than others. Donnelly, in her first novel, has not been able to fill up her little group with eight fully drawn characters. Some are one-stroke figures: Kate, the church-mousy spinster whose main pleasure at Mass is the opportunity it gives her to hold hands during the sign of peace; Stephen who does nothing but love Anne a lot; and Geoffrey, who gets involved in an unconvincingly presented spy affair, but who is chiefly there to be English and arrogant and cut-off.

Anne has a little more substance, but not much. She has a beautiful though untrained voice, and Donnelly has written an anemic side-plot about her brother-in-law's effort to lure her from her uxorious domesticity and turn professional. Father Bob is sometimes overdone and overfamiliar in his gung-ho attempt to be both modern and orthodox, but he has some amusing moments in his perpetual internal bickering with God--he calls him "Pal"--for letting him be tormented by thoughts of Alison.

Alison is one of the three figures whose struggles give the book its comedy and life. Beautiful and successful, she has had an easy Catholic upbringing and has rarely let her rather distant faith get in her way. Only when courted by Adam, an attractive, loosely married man--at the same time that she joins the Friday meetings--does she find herself with genuine scruples. They are very funny scruples, as well; and Adam's infinitely slow seduction efforts complement the comedy.

Maureen and Denis are also amusing, but afflicted with an individual pain that darkens each. Denis' stage-Irish presence is, for a change, genuinely funny and genuinely kind. There is a silence and a fear of intimacy inside; and Donnelly links it with all naturalness to his fear of taking after his mother and sister, whose charming eccentricities have grown into madness. The description of Denis' weekend with the pair is scary and intensely human; it is the work of real talent.

So is Maureen, whose contentiousness, energy and fury at the church she cannot escape, shade from comical to touching to grim.

Donnelly tells the separate and interwoven stories of the Friday nighters with an appealing liveliness and freshness. She maintains the tension between scruples and rebellion almost to the end. Then, as if losing control, she plunges several of the characters into a blackness that seems excessive and out of keeping with what has gone before.

The point of the tension has been its unresolvability. One understands the author's impatience; but her solution has been to dynamite the structure she had so engagingly built up.

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