Fire Sermon

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 09 Jan 2018

Member Reviews

This book wasn’t for me. I decided not to review it on my site or any of the major retailers/Goodreads.
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This novel came highly recommended by Garyh Greenwell, whose debut (What Belings to You) was brilliant. Unfortunately, however, I can’t say the same about Wuatro’s debut.
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“Because I fucked someone who isn’t my husband. Because I’m in love with my husband. Because I’m in love with a man I can never speak to again. Because I want to stay married. Because I’m filled with longing for a life I can’t have. Because I don’t want to confess to Thomas. Because I must confess to Thomas.”
What happens when a happily-married woman falls in love with another man? What happens when that woman is committed to her vows, and her religion, and cannot think of leaving her husband? What happens when choices become impossible to manoeuvre? What happens when the unthinkable presents itself as a choice? 

Maggie has been married to Thomas since her early twenties, and has had two children with him. She has a deep, committed Christian faith and cannot imagine acting out on her desires. But a platonic friendship with James, the poet, turns intro something more. This unleashes both desire and questioning within her – questioning her place in her faith and how far she can stray. the journey towards her decision makes for compelling, beguiling reading. Highly recommended.  

“No matter which ending I choose, all ends in loss.”
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Not to my liking at all. Frankly, I can't see anyone loving it.
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It is common for people to want what they cannot have and to lose interest in something once they get it. Maggie, the narrator in Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon is one of those people. Her mom tells the story of her begging for a necklace for a year, only to wear it twice and give it away once she gets it. So, she’s one of those. Unfortunately for her husband Thomas, she is like that with people, too.

Which has her in conversation with some unidentified interlocutor, probably her therapist, maybe a priest, to confess her infidelity and undying love and desire for James with whom she has fallen in love with through correspondence. This interlocutor reminds us of all the other men she has fallen for during her marriage. But this one is DIFFERENT! She sleeps with him, something we know right from the beginning. There is no real question of what she will do or anything in this book, the question is how she will feel about what she does.

Let me try to construct a praise sandwich about this book. Quatro is trying to say something profound, that marriage is important because it keeps us from getting what we really want (lots of illicit sex and satiation) so we don’t run out of longing. For Maggie, wanting is better than having. On the other hand, Quatro’s writing about sex is guffaw-worthy. Her sex with James is a ménage à quatre with God and Harlequin Romance. The best thing about this book is how short it was. Thirty minutes into it, I was ready to throw it across the room, but then I realized I was already nearly halfway through, so I figured I would finish it. I probably should not have, because it really is not a good book.

I am not a believer, but if I were, I think I would find her framing God as a collaborator and facilitator of infidelity to be offensive. Seriously, Maggie, you’re a cheater and just own it and don’t blame anyone else.

She and James are insufferable people, mental masturbators with hyper-intellectualized conversations about apophatic literature. (Yes! I had to look it up.) James writes poetry about the suffering induced by the market economy. With their conversations, I am puzzled by whose intellect I am supposed to be dazzled, Maggie, James, or Quatro’s. Maggie holds her husband in contempt intellectually. He’s not as smart. He’s in finance which she says in inaccessible, meaning she is not interested in it.

She’s also hyper-privileged, raised in a large, happy family with financial security. She even inherits a million dollars from an uncle. Her husband Thomas came from the polar opposite background, poverty, no father, no siblings, just his mother. This creates an imbalance of power in their marriage, he loves her more than she loves him, and she exploits it. I get the idea she thinks she is the prize in the Thomas’ Cracker Jacks. I think if she left him the first time she fell for someone else, he might have found someone whose love is not some admixture of pity, contempt, and fondness.

I received an e-galley of Fire Sermon from the publisher through NetGalley
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Despite having a relatively successful life, Maggie Ellman can't shake the feeling that something significant is missing from her life. Her life - and faith - is turned upside down when she becomes entangled in an affair. Torn between her religious morals of right and wrong, the letters/emails between her and her lover reveal a human being that's easy to connect with. Fire Sermon was poetic, with a lyrical writing style that I personally loved, but there also times when I was overwhelmed with information that seemed to serve no purpose to the story.

Overall, a beautiful short read that exposes the power of human needs.
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The first quarter of the book describes Maggie and Thomas' marriage, the ups and downs and their family life.  I enjoyed this part, and I felt sympathy for Maggie who had rushed into marriage and motherhood without developing a sense of self.

Then things got quite frankly weird.  Maggie had/did not have an affair - her Christian faith stopped her going the whole hog.  The rest of the book it taken up with letters that may or may not have been sent, ruminations on God and Christian faith, and an awful lot of naval gazing.

One of those books that made me feel intellectually inadequate. Not for me.
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infidelity and faith, this novella examines the two as less a 'dark night of the soul' and more along the lines of how the latter can exist in light of the former.
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I am leaving this unrated. The author has I know intellectually done something unique. Combining guilt, infidelity, marriage and children, while struggling with Christian values. But I can't connect to these characters, so well written but alas not for me. Thank you for the opportunity to read this, I do appreciate it.
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Maggie thinks that twenty-three years of marriage should mean something, but looking back on her life, all she can think is how she and her husband have always struggled to connect on a spiritual level. Her husband has never shared her faith. Enter James, a brilliant poet who Maggie hits it off with from the start. Their long-distance correspondence turns into something deeper, more meaningful than Maggie could ever imagine.

FIRE SERMON is as much about the intimacy of spiritual connection as it is about the intimacy of sex. Maggie and her husband struggle to connect on the spiritual level that Maggie feels is so important, so their sex life is in shambles. But the faith that Maggie and James hold keeps them from giving in to the longing they feel for one another. It's all a mess. A beautiful, glorious mess.

Quatro layers her novel with meaning, and her writing moves and rolls and burns with the emotions of her characters. In a just a few words, she conveys lifetimes of meaning. This book parallels spiritual and sexual intimacy, so it can get a little weird, and won't be for everyone. But her skill and insight into the truths we hide from others, and ourselves, make FIRE SERMON a book I will still be thinking about months from now.
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Forty-five year old Maggie Ellman has been married for twenty-three years, has two college aged children, and continually feels that something is missing in her life. She attended Princeton for her doctorate in comparative literature. She lost interest and so studied a field that was an intersection between poetry and theology. She then changed to eschatology and again lost interest. Upon moving to Nashville, she started another doctoral program at Vanderbilt.

She tries to reconcile her guilt and strong religious beliefs with her actions and desires. The more she tries to analyze, the more confused she gets and the two opposites become fused together.

We try to put all this together to figure out what’s going on in Maggie’s head. Fire Sermon moves back and forth – from her wedding to current time, college, and emails between her and her “real” love, James Abbott, another poet.

I couldn’t put this book down as I enjoyed how the author expressed Maggie’s feelings and confusion, with a nice amount of eroticism that wasn’t over the top. Another major plus is the writing style; the literary cadence keeps the reader totally engaged.

Though I didn’t care about Maggie herself, I enjoyed trying to figure her out. That is where the suspense lies, as we aren’t concerned whether her husband will find out about her current affair; we wonder whether Maggie will ever resolve her issues.

Those who appreciate realistic psychological studies will enjoy this one.

The complete review has been posted on UnderratedReads.
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This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Grove/Atlantic. This review has also been published to GoodReads, LinkedIn, and my social media accounts.

The review:

Fire Sermon is not a love story. It is not a tale of adultery, or a novel about lust or passion. It is a novel about Love, its nature and many expressions, and a woman's desperate longing for that all-encompassing love and for beauty, and for a coherent and cohesive life.

Maggie, an academic doing research in Theology, was brought up within a traditional, closed-mind evangelical church. Her religion, her faith and its teaching are of paramount importance for her, expressed not just in the principles for a virtuous life that she observes for most of her life, but also in her love of God.

As all good, observant Christian girls brought up in strict churches, at 22 Maggie marries the first boy she goes out and has sex with, Thomas. As should a choice of life partner be for any good Christian girl from a good, Christian, quite affluent middle-class family, steeped in the principle that the accumulation of money is a sign of God's favour, Thomas is already shining in his financial career. His prospects are excellent, and Maggie's family is very proud of her of partner.

Maggie and Thomas have two children, both problematic -- and traumatic -- deliveries. Maggie dotes on them, as she dotes on Matthew, as she does on family and the concept of a Christian family. Thomas is not a believer, but as they move away from Maggie's family and settle down on their own, she draws him into her new church. Twenty years go by.

Through her love of poetry and the beauty, peace and balance it seems to bring to her, she meets James, a poet she admires. Their first meeting is in July 2014, at an academic conference in her hometown, Nashville. Maggie and James correspond for two years, until they meet again, twice, at other conferences: once in New York in September 2016, and the third and last time in Chicago in April 2017. It is at this last meeting that Maggie and James sleep together. James has left his wife by then; it is never said in the novel that he did so because of Maggie, but it quite apparent in everything that is said that James is as in love with Maggie as Maggie is with him, a love that is not just the fire of sexual passion they succumb to in Chicago, but the communion of minds they have maintained all those years of corresponding with one another. It is in Chicago, too, that Maggie decides to break up all contact with James.

Her faith and religious teachings now visibly shaken and repeatedly questioned, instead of burning in what she chooses to see as merely her and James' lust, and where James choice is, contrary to Maggie's, of ending a marriage where there is no longer any love and communion, Maggie chooses to burn in the living out of her previous choices: James, her marriage to him, her family by him, their life.

Fire Sermon is one of those books where the choice of structure is of paramount importance to, and heavily influences, the story being told. Given the weight of religion and religious observance in the story, structuring it as a sermon (which is, as defined in Wikipedia, "an oration, lecture, or talk by a member of a religious institution or clergy. Sermons address a Biblical, theological, religious, or moral topic, usually expounding on a type of belief, law or behaviour within both past and present contexts). In the process, she explores its various traditions and forms, and it becomes apparent that the sermon is not only the logical choice, but the most appropriate structure for this novel. Maggie's sermon if further delivered in an impromptu but extemporaneous fashion, mirroring two of the traditional styles of delivery of sermons, with her journal entries being unplanned and quite spontaneous, but bearing behind her narrative all the weight of her religious upbringing and her Theology scholarship. Maggie is thus established, first and foremost, as an academic, a Theology scholar, and as a firm believer and practising Christian: sermons are indeed part of her upbringing, and of her academic research. Moreover, her faith seems unshakable.

It is for the reader to make the necessary inferences, discern the implications and the hidden relationships of things, as we put together the puzzle of form and style, the sermon Maggie delivers to herself and the poetic language she uses, the facts she narrates, the feelings she discloses. We see the story through Maggie's eyes, read the sermon that explores, in a most intimate way, her innermost being, her suffering and her longings, her determined path towards illumination; she is presented, from the beginning, as a trustworthy narrator, as she unveils herself and her prevarications before our eyes. We have absolutely no reason to doubt her, what she knows, her perceptions, her analysis.

Writing her novel in the form of a sermon, Jamie Quatro borrowed her title from the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, most commonly known as "Fire Sermon", where Buddha's preaches detachment from the senses, and describes all internal and external senses and perceptions, all resultant mental phenomena and consciousness as "burning": burning with passion, with aversion, with delusion and with suffering. It is only through this burning that one can become disenchanted and detached from the senses, and consequently achieve spiritual elevation. Ultimately, it is with this process of "burning" that Quatro's Fire Sermon is concerned.

And burning Maggie does. She burns in her passion and love for James. She burns in her sexual aversion for a man whose first sexual act with her was one of violence, a man who turns violent and forces himself on her every time she denies him sex, a man for whom she never felt any sexual attraction or intellectual affinity. She burns, because it was her choice, and she has to go through with it: the man she chose to marry, the life she chose to build. She burns with suffering, because she tried to burn her passion and lust for James by having sex with him, as if doing it once would definitely close the issue and bolt the door for her temptation, but it turns out that it wasn't just lust after all, but "the real deal", a love more real than anything she had ever experienced before, a love where minds and bodies are in perfect synchronicity, completely attuned. She burns in her self-imposed deprivation of James and all that James means and embodies. On her deprivation of love with a capital L, if such love can ever belong between a man and a woman in the eyes of the church. She burns in the guilt of her adulterous act. She burns in the delusion of her perfect husband, of her perfect marriage; her delusion of marital duty; her delusion of her Christian duty to salvage her marriage. And Maggie burns in suffering, for all she loses as she loses James, as she loses her chosen path, as she loses herself. She burns in her Faith, and in her questioning of that same faith, and the validity of its precepts.

Jamie Quatro successfully explores several of the traditional sermon types, including that of sermon as conversation. Thus Maggie is depicted pouring her soul out and writing it all down in her journal: all the letters she will never send to James, and which resemble more the conversations she might have had with him if he was there with her; her conversations with a third person, where she debates her actions and her beliefs; what values and precepts are embodied by her faith and religious teachings; and her own feelings, observations and perceptions of what she is going through and where she intends to take herself, tracing her path towards complete detachment from the senses as a means to achieve the balance, serenity and the coherence she desires. Maggie flows from one type of sermon to the other, one element of the sermon as form to the other: she goes from exposition of her values and of her deviation from them, and her guilt for her actions, to exhorting herself to a life of complete commitment to her values,  and finally to the practical application of those values, in the pursuit of the path Maggie has drawn for herself.

Therefore, Maggie and Thomas carry on living together as husband and wife; having marital sex, Thomas now in full knowledge of Maggie's feelings for another man and lack of sexual attraction for him, Maggie choosing, despite her aversion, to placate him and avoid any more violence, any more of Thomas accesses of fury and forced sex.

No one ever knows about Maggie's burning -- except herself. With the years, the fire finally starts to subside. James is consigned to the realm of memory, all the what-could-have-been and the what-ifs relegated to the realm of fantasy. He observes their Chicago agreement and never tries to contact Maggie. In the end, Maggie begins to wonder whether he had loved her as much as she had loved him, but the fact is that, despite the intensity and pain of her love, she too never contacted him after Chicago. He writes his memoirs, and Maggie abstains from -- she avoids -- reading them, even though she wonders whether she figures in there somewhere: she does not want to find out, preferring to bask -- burn? -- in her memory -- and her fantasy? -- of a perfect, eternal love.

With the years, too, Thomas learns to become more accommodating, more compromising, more understanding, maybe. He puts an end to his sexual aggression. Maggie too accommodates, compromises. They salvage their marriage, their family. They observe the precepts of their religion and salvage their life, albeit in detriment of love and of life's essence and real truth: what appears over what is, because, in the end, the teachings they believe in are that the material, the touchable, the sensible, the whatness of things is not what is, it is not the essence, it is not the truth. Following from Plato and Aristotle, and their theories of being and essence, and ending up in a full circle, the truth of anything, the essence, it belongs only to the realm of the spiritual, of God. The realm of the form, from which all other things are copied, and which alone gives meaning to being, to life itself.

the verdict:

Fire Sermon is an amazing and amazingly beautiful read. The rhythm and poetry of the language will leave you quite breathless at times. And the storyline will break your heart. It is not a love story, as much as a deep reflexion on the nature of love itself, and the many kinds and expressions love can come under, from the most physical and visceral to the most platonic, most spiritual: the love of and within the family, the love of God and the church, the love between a man and a woman, the love embodied in a complete communion of minds. The love of self. The act of love that constitutes Faith.

Fire Sermon is a book about love. But mostly it is a book about longing, to once more quote Garth Greenwell. It is a longing that comes from deep within the soul, from deep within a being: the longing "for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life” which, in the end, and irrespective of how much our faith might weigh in our life, is what we all long for: complete fulfillment, aesthetically, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
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Fire Sermon is an intense look at a woman's struggle to fit within her definition of a faithful wife and a person of faith.
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Many books focus on romantic affairs, but it takes something special to shed new light on this common subject. Two of my all-time favourite novels that explore the dynamics of an affair are Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz” which both feel so searingly honest in portraying the complicated emotions of all three of the people involved. Jamie Quatro’s “Fire Sermon” adds an entirely new dynamic charting the trajectory of an affair over her protagonist Maggie’s lifetime. Shifting back and forth through time, the story recounts the beginning of her marriage to Thomas, the intense moment when she and poet James decide to go to a hotel together and the complicated aftermath. In a series of letters (sent and unsent), conversations with a therapist and recollections of moments from Maggie’s life she searches for meaning and an understanding of her choices. Since she was raised religiously and continues to study religious texts, her reasoning is inflected with a complicated spiritual dynamic. The novel builds to a powerfully heartfelt and intense communion with the self.
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Buddha’s Ādittapariyāya Sutta or Fire Sermon Discourse is the third discourse delivered after his enlightenment. In the text, Buddha preaches about achieving liberation from suffering through detachment from the five senses and mind. After reading Jamie Quatro’s debut novel Fire Sermon, the inner anguish experienced by Quatro’s main character Maggie, suddenly becomes clear.

Buddha described in the Fire Sermons that every aspect of life experiences are known as “burning,” explaining that it applies to “pleasant and unpleasant phenomena alike.” It’s evident that Quatro uses the Fire Sermon teachings to ignite Maggie’s own confusions and emotional dilemmas. Specifically when she starts feeling a powerful attraction for James, a poet with whom she has been corresponding and sharing a love of literature and musings about her devotion to God.

Ironically, the Fire Sermons preach a lesson that Maggie seems to not immediately grasp. Buddha insists that there is a choice between not adding fuel to the fire by making the burning personal, or to add fuel “in the form of wanting, aversion, and ignorance.” But it isn’t only in the growing desire she feels for the poet, but in the distance she willingly creates from her husband Thomas, that Maggie adds fuel to the burning of her unmet desires and frustrations.

However, it isn’t just Maggie’s lust for James that expands with the growing of her own marital dissatisfaction, but also a series of enigmatic conversations with perhaps God or herself. In these, Maggie tries to find answers to her increasing feelings for James, and is met with a voice that in no short terms informs her that she might be making a mountain out of a molehill:

    Were I to articulate them it would sound like blasphemy. I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire. I might not believe the things I say. I would say them anyhow. To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe. Maybe even detach.

    So say them.

    I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.

    How do you know unless you try?

Even though Maggie and James’ desire for each other is a crucial plot point in the novel, it is by no means the only one. The view into Maggie’s relationship and then marriage to Thomas is equally key in understanding her infatuation with James. Her sexual desire for Thomas diminishes after she gives birth to their first child, a problem that he attempts to solve by giving her an array of different sized and shaped vibrators, which Maggie loathes but pretends to enjoy out of guilt for not being able to summon any desire for him.

Quatro’s prose is close enough to stream of consciousness to portray Maggie’s sense of inner conflict and confusion, but not enough to be a completely loose monologue devoid of punctuation. The story is solely from Maggie’s point of view, with the exception of the last chapter told by an invisible narrator, whose identity we can only attempt to guess.

As Maggie’s feelings for James deepen, conversely so does her commitment to her husband and her children, which prompts her to end the affair. However, they resume conversations over the phone and meet once again during a conference in Chicago, one that Thomas was supposed to attend with Maggie, but decides to go on a business trip to Turks and Caicos at the last minute. This change in plans pushes Maggie in a direction she has tried to avoid, one that will have her question her loyalty and morality while attempting to untangle the love she feels for both James and Thomas.

Quatro’s protagonist is by no means a simple character to grasp. Maggie lies to herself, to James, to Thomas and to us. She tells different versions of the same question, we assume in an attempt to avoid conflict and delving too deep into her many emotional flounders:

    Sometimes when the house is empty.
    I practice saying the words out loud.
    Different ways of saying it, depending
    On the listener.
    I committed adultery,
    I say to my mother.
    I fell in love with another man,
    I say to my best friend.
    We fucked, it meant nothing
    I say to Thomas.
    It was the best thing,
    I say to you. In all my life,
    The very best thing.

Even her inner “voice” has trouble believing her alleged love for James, pointing out that she’s had desires for other men and even women before. While Maggie insists that this time it is love, the voice challenging her proposes that perhaps “it is the acquisition you’re in love with, not the person.” This may very well be true, but the narrative is limited to Maggie’s perspective and if she lies to herself, the truth remains an enigma for the reader.

In the Fire Sermons, Buddha preaches against adding fuel to a fire in the way of wanting, aversion, and ignorance. Maggie willingly or unwillingly, does all three. By insisting on keeping her want and desire for James alive, she also fuels her growing sexual aversion towards her husband. Ultimately, this stokes her ignorance about her true feelings and what the relationship with James really represents. A sense of achieving the sublime, the point of ultimate physical desire by way of intellectual connection. A powerful thing, to be sure. But is it truly love?

With Fire Sermon, Jamie Quatro challenges the reader to navigate the jumble of desire, religion and love and how perhaps a gripping affair might just be the ultimate salvation of a stalled marriage. Undoubtedly, the topic of infidelity being in love with two people is hardly ground-breaking. But to add the teachings of Buddha about liberation through detachment to the story of a love affair is certainly not a typical thing.

This alone makes it a worthwhile and engrossing read.
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ormally speaking, this book is great. Instead of having a linear narration of the married life and affair of Maggie, Quatro emulates the complexity and messiness of life through a text going back and forth between past and present, sometimes through straigthtforward narrative chapters, sometimes through email exchanges, or dialogues with an unidentified person. The result makes for an attractive reading experience, one that renews interest in the theme as old as world of the middle-aged affair in a less-than-perfect marriage. 
However, in the end, I was left with the nagging impression that Maggie's willingness to suffer her husband's abusive approach to sex for the sake of their marriage is equated to Love, that somehow, being guilt-ridden at the first perceived mistake is what makes her, what, a symbol of Love ? I don't know exactly how to articulate it, but that last part, the very last few pages, felt like a let down to me, though I admit it is coherent with the Christian background of the story. Just not really my jam, I guess.
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2.5, rounded up. Like a guilty paramour leaving an unsatisfying relationship, I almost want to apologize to this book, saying " Honestly, it's not you - it's me"! But then again, if I had only felt any connection to this tale of the unrelieved religious guilt caused by a momentary affair, told from the point of view of a married female poet/academic ... but I didn't, so I have to feel the author's lack of extracting universal truths from these specifics bears some responsibility for my lack of enthusiasm.

Clearly the author has a way with words - certain sections are rendered in lovely, lyrical prose - but then, others get so bogged down in uninteresting minutiae, that I felt like skipping whole passages (one of which, during which the protagonist is in the midst of a religious/sexual frenzy, is a shoe in for the annual Literary Review bad sex in fiction award; sorry I can't cite it, but the publishers have requested no quotes from these uncorrected proofs). Speaking of which - I still can't QUITE decide if my Kindle was just exhibiting formatting errors, or if indeed, this was written in a purposely odd linguistic style that mashes together sections that should be separated, and foregoes standard grammar/punctuation - somehow, I despair that it is indeed the latter. 

Since it was a very quick read, taking less than a full day to get through, and I didn't actively HATE it, I begrudgingly give it a 2.5, but I can't truly recommend it. My sincere thanks, however, to Netgalley and the publisher for granting me access to an advanced reading copy, in exchange for this honest review.
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It was different than I expected from other reviews. I expected more narrative, but it felt closer to a woven stream-of-consciousness. I expected a conclusion, but found questions. And the prose was lovely and the feelings true, so I much preferred the reality to the expectation.
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Maggie and Thomas have been married for years, raised a family, and now are in middle age. Maggie has strayed from her marriage and now tries to reconcile her religious beliefs with what she feels. 

This story is not just non-linear, it jumps from from action to Maggie's pondering on religion without any notice. We go back and forth from past to present, slowly learning how Maggie arrived at this place in her life. 

There were a couple things I found problematic with this novel. The style did nothing for me in terms of furthering the story. The main issue I had though was not with the style; the problem was the characters. I could not connect to them at all, which made it difficult to care what happened. This may work better for other readers, but it fell flat for me.
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