Rachel's Contrition

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Available at Amazon.com
Category: Contemporary
Date Published: September 30, 2010
Number of Pages: 352
Print Price: $14.95
eBook Price: $9.95

Rachel's Contrition: The Divine Passive in Fiction

Rachel's Contrition tackles the grim topic of the death of a child. Knowing this beforehand, I came to the book with a sense of dread. Not only is this every mother’s nightmare, but it is one that I have personally experienced. An author would have to be exceptionally skilled to get me to enjoy reading about another mother’s grief. And yes, I do mean enjoy. There is a mystery to both the reading and writing of fiction, before which we can only stand amazed and grateful. How can the imaginative rendering of other people’s pain release the powerful pleasures of fiction?

Michelle Buckman manages the trick. As I write this review in November of 2010, Rachel's Contrition is #6 on the top 10 list of Amazon's Women's Literature & Fiction category, & #1 in Women's Fiction > Mothers & Children. This is a novel that has excellent reviews and wide appeal. It features a Catholic understanding of the moral universe. I found it marvelously entertaining and original.

Rachel Winters has scratched her way up from a childhood of poverty and neglect to revel in an ideal life—marriage to doctor Joseph Sinclair Winters, Jr. (Sinclair), a privileged life of family and rank, and mother to toddler Seth and beautiful baby Caroline. Then, in the snap of a finger, Rachel's world is shattered by tragedy. She finds herself shut out of Sinclair's life, able to see Seth only on carefully arranged visits, and teetering on the brink of madness by the loss of her daughter Caroline. Worst of all, she cannot forgive Sinclair for his part in Caroline’s death.

Rachel lives out her new, numb life in a pool house she rents from Colette, the only one of her wealthy friends who will have anything to do with her in her altered situation. Her other former friends, wives of Sinclair’s business associates, all seem to shrink from Rachel and to take Sinclair's side against her. The only person who does not snub Rachel is Lilly, Colette’s troubled teenaged stepdaughter. Lilly harbors her own secret pain, and comes and goes in the pool house like a sardonic wraith. She leaves little things for Rachel to find, like a book by St. Therese of Lisieux. Despite her annoyance at Lilly, Rachel stirs herself from lethargy to try and understand the motivations of her disdainful, cryptic, uninvited guest.

A murder thickens the plot, but also provides a bit of a misstep, nudging the narrative into the mystery genre, where convention dictates that the murder itself move front and center. This does not happen. It is as if the author was afraid that she could not hold her audience with the story of Rachel’s unraveling alone. But a murder whose solving is only a sub-plot undermines the conventions of mystery writing, and is a distraction here. The main event is Rachel’s contrition, and the noun itself intrigues us. For what is she contrite? Fate has dealt her one blow after another. Is she not more sinned against than sinning?

It is here that Buckman shines, in the narrating of Rachel’s journeying in the realms of human pain and the discovery of what – or rather Who – lies at the heart of that darkness. God has His own story arc in Rachel’s Contrition, but it plays out so subtly that the reader is barely aware that another actor has taken the stage.

Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias once described a verbal structure found in the gospels and virtually nowhere else in ancient writings. It is known as the divine passive. This is a way that Jesus, when he speaks, uses the passive voice to describe an action whose subject would be God if it were put into the active voice. The best-known examples are in the beatitudes. If you were to reconstruct the beatitudes in active voice, the subject would be God and the direct object the persons acted on. Thus, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted" becomes "Blessed are they who mourn, for [there is One Who] will comfort them." “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" becomes "Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for [there is One Who] will fill them."

Learning about the divine passive has given me an appreciation for Jesus' delicacy and reserve in describing the activity of God. Writers of Christian fiction sometimes show less discretion in describing how God works in the human soul. Efforts to depict the details of God’s wooing of human protagonists can fail in ways that range from overly florid descriptions of mystical experience to exaggerated scenes of religious conversion .

Rachel’s Contrition works an intriguing variation on the divine passive. Everyjourney of the spiritrequires a guide or a guidebook, and St. Therese’s Story of a Soul provides Rachel with hers. When she picks up the book that Lilly has left for her, Rachel is not drawn to the joyful side of the saint. The pain, loss and darkness of spirit that characterize so much of Therese Martin’s short life resonate with Rachel. Rachel has hungered for love, and finds an echoing hunger in Therese Martin’s experience of life. She reads the saint’s autobiography in bits and pieces, finding herself attracted to the strategies St. Therese devises for handling the disturbances, slights, and anguish of her everyday life. In St. Therese, Rachel finds a kindred spirit, but with a difference. Therese, unlike Rachel, does not shrink from other people because of her own pain but engages herself fully in the world around her.

The reader doesn’t need to be Catholic or even Christian to share Rachel’s curiosity about St. Therese’s “little way.” As with the divine passive in the gospels, Rachel’s discovery of the practice of mindfully offering up of the events of everyday life for the sake of love leads to knowledge of the unnamed God.

There is much to love in this book. Buckman does a good job fleshing out Sinclair, Seth, and even Caroline, who barely appears but whose fleeting materializations in Rachel’s memory evoke a lively presence. Also, the Catholic priesthood shines, in a rare look into how priests really minister to persons who come to their churches with inchoate needs.

This is an engaging, solid entry from the new Chisel and Cross imprint of the Sophia Institute Press. Chisel and Cross seeks to offer contemporary fiction that will help readers discover how to be Catholics in the modern world. As their website notes,We are aiming to build up the pool of good Catholic fiction books… Contemporary Catholics have been treated to a few good stories in modern culture, but most of those stories are not about people like themselves, just people who happen to have a passing resemblance to them because of accidental morality. We want to give Catholics, particularly young Catholics, stories featuring characters they can relate to and love.”

Rachel’s Contrition fits the bill.

ISBN-13: 978-1933184722
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 0.9 inches

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Rae Stabosz spent twenty-seven years as a computer geek at the University of Delaware before retiring in 2007. She is now free to write, spoil her grandchildren, and indulge her love of books as an Amazon re-seller at The Pious Ladies Bookmobile. She is the mother of nine splendid children, and wife of forty years to Bill Stabosz. As he likes to say, “It’s worked out so far.” Visit Rae’s blog: Confessions of a Cooperator

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