Brittle Joys

Buy from
Available at
Category: Classic
Date Published: May 18, 2000
Number of Pages: 272
Print Price: $.50
eBook Price: $

There is little enjoyment to be found in Sara Maitland’s novel, Brittle Joys. Set in modern day England the story follows the life of Ellie: wife, mother, artist, business owner, and Catholic. Through her experiences the reader is introduced to Henry, Ellie’s husband; Judith, her best friend; coworkers Mary, Patsy, and Megan; Hugo, Ellie’s flamboyantly homosexual and ex-Catholic confidant/companion; and Angel, a spiritual being who visits Ellie and offers her reflections on life’s happenings.

The relationship between Ellie and Hugo is at the center of the narrative.  Together, they work with AIDS patients in their community.  Both have seen more than their share of sorrow as they’ve watched numerous friends die from the horrifying disease.  They are both weary from the work, but persevere because of their simple desire to help those, who are often forgotten or disregarded, die with dignity and respect. 

In addition to her work with AIDS patients, Ellie is also a successful artist.  A renowned glass blower, she owns her own studio.  She is also a daughter, wife and mother, though she finds much less success in these roles. Ellie is estranged from both her mother and her daughter and lives a rather monotonous existence with her husband of many years. He will eventually leave the marriage and create the occasion for Ellie to tumble further into the void of narcissism.

Aside from the appearance of Angel, there is little of interest in the first half of the book; its pace is sluggish.  Maitland spends an exorbitant amount of time describing a woman who will ultimately never reach an epiphany or experience any measurable growth. This is only one of many difficulties I found with Brittle Joys.

Least among these is the problem with editing; there are numerous typographical errors throughout.  Most troubling and most seriously, however, is the way in which Maitland toys with ideals that do not correspond to orthodox Catholic teaching and presents them in a way that would seem to the contrary. These instances represent my chief concern with the work.

The character of Angel provides the most stunning examples of the problem.  Angel, who is apparently Ellie’s guardian angel and thereby appears to speak with the authority of one sent from God, is often in error. Angel implies that Ellie’s daughter Stephanie is a witch who is somehow capable of performing magic.  When Ellie understandably becomes angry at the suggestion, the heavenly being corrects her, “You only don’t want to think of Stephanie as a witch because you have negative views of witchcraft (…) You ought to be proud.”

In another episode, Angel tells Ellie, “Almost all angels like gay men better too.  We have a soft spot—I mean for those sexually active liberated ones.  Queers.  Angels like queers.” In one fell swoop, Maitland places homosexuals over heterosexuals and endorses homosexual behavior. The Catholic Church is, of course, opposed to the idea that a person’s worth be based on anything other than their creation in the image of God; all men and women are equal in his eyes.

It is also well known that the Church is and has always been against homosexual behavior as well as any other sexual act outside the boundaries of a sacramental marriage. Most troubling for Catholic readers, there is no point in the story where Angel’s words are refuted or corrected in any way. 

There is, in fact, no moment where Ellie experiences the true enlightenment her character so desperately needs.  She does eventually attempt reconciliation with her daughter, but she otherwise remains confused and quite shallow with respect to her personal life. She actually seems to slip deeper into error and further into an interior emptiness.

It doesn’t appear that Maitland writes with the intention of showing such nihilism as negative, however.  Near the end of the story Ellie attends a gay “wedding” and endorses the artificial insemination of one of her employees.  It is my feeling that Maitland sees her character as being further “enlightened” and “freer” by the end of the novel. She expects her reader to feel the same.

The only redeeming quality to be found in the novel, the only quality which portrays the beauty of Catholicism, is Ellie’s work with AIDS patients. Maitland’s treatment of the disease is both genuine and organic.  She exposes the agony of the terminal illness in all its horror and invites each of us to question our own actions in regard to those in so desperate a need. This is one area in which the character of Ellie (and ultimately Maitland) does not fail.

Despite this, I have grave concerns about this work.  I am certain that the novel could cause people to become confused about Catholic teaching and ultimately lead them into error. For that reason, I cannot recommend this book. Ms. Maitland certainly has enjoyed some success as a writer and she apparently identifies herself as Catholic, but I do not judge this to be a good example of Catholic fiction. There are definitely others more worthy of the title.


ISBN-13: 978-1860497599
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions:

Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"

Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.

Michelle Sheehan Tholen is a graduate of Catholic Distance University (CDU). She holds a Master's Degree in Theology with a concentration in Catholic Culture from that institution and a BA in English from the University of Maryland University College. She is the mother of two, lives in Bayou Vista, Louisiana with her husband, Paul and teaches English at Hanson Memorial High School. Mrs. Tholen is a writer for the CDU Year of Faith blog at

Leave your comment

Catholic, Ink.

Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival

Sign-up for this free weekly e-newsletter and receive the free article - "What is Catholic Fiction?" Read the weekly column The Catholic Imagination and You and more.

Search Books

Catholic, Ink.

Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival

Sign-up for this free weekly e-newsletter and receive the free article - "What is Catholic Fiction?" Read the weekly column The Catholic Imagination and You and more.