MARIETTE IN ECSTASY by Ron Hansen (Harper Collins: $19.95; 192 pp.) Religions, like people, grow old; they lose their tolerance for the enthusiasms that stirred their own youth. "Mariette in Ecstasy" is the story of a 17-year-old girl who enters a Catholic convent in Upstate New York on a postulant, or trial, basis in 1906. The stigmata--the wounds of Christ on the Cross--repeatedly appear on her hands, feet and side. In medieval times, Mariette would have become a saint. But although the order of French-Belgian nuns she aspires to join seems determined to preserve medieval values against the encroachment of the modern world, her fate is quite different.
Even by 1906, sophistication has seeped through the walls of the cloister. Nuns and priests are knowledgeable about psychology, aware of the many instances of fakery since St. Francis of Assisi first displayed the stigmata. Some are willing to suspect Mariette, the pretty, pampered daughter of a local doctor, of sexual hysteria. Others are simply jealous of this sign of God's favor. Mariette threatens to bring publicity to a group that shuns it; she is a star in a system that depends on team players. In short, she is too much \o7 trouble.\f7
"I pray," says the prioress who will eventually expel her, "that if it is in your power to stop this--as I presume it is--that you do indeed stop it."
Ron Hansen has visited the American past before, in "Desperadoes" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Nothing quite prepares us, however, for this novel's blend of sensuous beauty and self-restraint. Hansen's research fills it with the wine of intimate detail without spilling an excess drop; his personality vanishes into those of his characters. He disdains all easy ironies. Indeed, Mariette's miraculous experiences are presented as real. This book will appeal to unbelievers as a study of group dynamics, an introduction to convent life and a story of personal tragedy; it also can be read as a genuine work of devotion.