The Miracle, by John L’Heureux

Father Paul LeBlanc is handsome and charismatic, but also troubled. Not because he questions the war in Vietnam, papal infallibility, and the primacy of individual conscience, all of which puts him in conflict with the Boston hierarchy. Rather, it is because he cannot commit himself to his vocation, nor establish a true relationship with the God he serves. And so as this 2002 novel begins, he is transferred to a small church on the New Hampshire coast; and, forced to admit his troubled vocation, he appeals to God. Since he cannot find himself to love others, including God, he prays that God will love him—and says he will do anything in return if God will only do so.

And then, the housekeeper at his new rectory, Rose, sees her daughter Mandy die of an overdose. But, refusing to accept her daughter’s death, she prays for her to survive. In fact, the church’s dying pastor, Father Moriarty, sees her alive in a dream. And she does survive. Which intrigues Father Paul. What did Rose do? Is it a miracle? He wants to deny it, but cannot. And he decides it isn’t the miracle he needs to understand; it’s Rose.

L’Heureux has more on his mind here than if there was a miracle. He explores what this presumed miracle means to others. Father Paul, especially, needs to know how Rose revived her daughter. What capability for miracles does Rose have within her? And his fascination with Rose turns this novel toward the bond between human love and divine love. And about the doubts his new attraction to Rose raises in his faith and in his worthiness as a priest.

Meanwhile, a parishioner, Anna Kathryn Malley is herself attracted to the handsome Father Paul. She even sees him as a “man she might marry one day.” When she reveals that she has never been able to commit herself to a man, he realizes it is his own problem as well: human relationships. But a priest need not commit himself to such relationships, she says, whereas her life has been one of continual failure at them. Eventually, Father Paul realizes that this good person needs help. And he is a priest. And as each begins to understand the other’s failure, they begin exploring their mutual need. Whereupon, the reader wonders where this new relationship is going.

Meanwhile, Mandy dies again, irony of ironies, and seems to be a victim of a miracle gone wrong. Now begins the heart of this novel. Father Paul is drawn to comfort the bereaving mother. And finds that this is expressed in a lust for her. For if he can possess her, he thinks, he will finally understand that miracle. “And is it lust,” he ssks, “to want to understand a miracle?” She, in turn, has long looked upon this attractive priest with equal fervor. And so by letting his body fulfill itself sexually, he relates to another person. But if he has fulfilled his role as a man, he is drowning in guilt.

In the morning, both are sorry, but there are no regrets. Only guilt. Whereupon, Anna Kathryn helps Father Paul realize that while God will forgive him for this sin, the priest cannot forgive himself. And when he raises new doubts about his vocation, Father Moriarty, his own body betrayed by ALS, suggests to Father Paul “you became a priest because you wanted God’s approval. But God doesn’t need you. Or me.”

Father Paul, however, cannot shake his guilt, or his lust. In fact, in his dreaming of a kiss, Rose turns into Anna Kathryn. Is it now Anna Kathryn he wishes to possess? For the rest of the novel, Father Paul is torn between his desire for the two women and how this conflicts with his wish to remain a priest. What is remarkable is the understanding of the priesthood in this novel, such as one’s responsibilities to God, to the faithful, to fellow priests, and to oneself. This comes across most beautifully in Father Paul’s conversations with his supervisor, Monsignor Glynn, and with Father Moriarty. “Tell me to stop being a priest,” he says to Glynn. “I’ve come a long way from wanting to be a saint. Isn’t that that the next step?”

Both priests are sympathetic to Father Paul and his internal travail, but both treat him, first, as a fellow human being trying to deny his own humanity. They remind him that he has a relationship with God, yes, but it is a relationship that he needs to have, not one that God needs to have with him.

These priests are themselves human, not representatives of God, or of their Church. They fully understand the weaknesses and uncertainties of being human. And L’Heureux surely presents such effective portraits because he himself was once a priest. Who left the priesthood following the upheaval that Vatican II brought to the Catholic Church. Indeed, what this novel suggests is that such modernization did not go far enough in acknowledging the humanity of both priests and the faithful.

Meanwhile, Father Paul and Anna Kathryn are drawn closer together. At the beach, he says, “Tell me about your boyfriends.” And she: “Tell me about God.” Later, she invites him on a picnic to tell him that she loves him. But at the key moment, both are frozen speechless. And later, she writes, “You are incapable of happiness, and I incapable of living without it.”

Father Paul realizes that “his idea of God was simply egoism turned inside out.” Thus, “extinguishing the self to make it perfect meant getting rid of everything human.” This is accompanied by the one melodramatic scene in the novel, a scene in which Father Paul convinces himself of one thing while doing another. It is not entirely convincing, but it does lead to him facing reality, and recalling the earlier advice of the dying Father Moriarty: “Try loving somebody besides yourself for once.”

L’Heureux winds up this story of the three priests and the two women somewhat poetically, as each reaches a self-realization. Father Paul, says, “I don’t want to love God, any God. I want to love someone.” While Rose decides that having sex, including with a priest, “was like getting even with God,” presumably for the loss of her daughter. And Father Moriarty “reaches up and his hand fades in darkness, and another hand grasps his. [And] this new…dark is more light than humankind can bear.”

In sum, this novel explores the link between faith and love, and how a crisis in one can lead to a crisis in the other. As Bruce Bower sums up in The New York Times, this is “a delicately nuanced portrait of recognizably human individuals making what they can of life.”

This reviewer needs to read more works by L’Heureux. (July, 2019)

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Munich, by Robert Harris

From the first page to the last, one reads this 2017 novel as if one is experiencing history. As if the reader is in each scene, watching and eavesdropping as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, along with their respective entourages, meet at Munich in 1938 in their brief and famous effort to avoid a new world war.

We are brought into the scene by two presumably fictional characters, Paul von Hartmann, a minor official in the German Foreign Office, and Hugh Legat, a rising British diplomat who is fluent in German and is a private secretary to Chamberlain. The two diplomats first met as students at Oxford University and have drifted away from each other, but now they meet again because Hartmann, part of an anti-Hitler movement in Germany, has sent a message to the British that he has a document verifying Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe. And so the British send Legat to Munich with Chamberlain with orders to contact Hartmann, for if the British can obtain those plans, they can expose Hitler before he can put them into action.

The novel consists of alternate meetings by each side as both the English and the Germans scheme over four days on the German threat to swallow parts of Czechoslovakia. These meetings will conclude with a joint statement and the famous Chamberlain declaration that his efforts had achieved “peace for our time.” What is remarkable is the suspense that Harris has created here, even when the actual outcome of the Munich meeting is so well known.

The first explanation for this suspense, I believe, is our fascination at learning, step by step, what really happened. We are there at both private meetings in which the German, English, Italian and French leaders meet with their entourages to discuss strategy and deal with their colleagues, and then at a public meeting as the two main leaders confront one another. Such details, along with a vivid description of the Munich environment, including ever-present German crowds in the street, reveal not only the author’s extensive research but also his ability to convert the dry findings of that research into the realistic details of his fictional world.

The second reason for suspense is our concern for the two fictional characters, Legat and Hartmann, given the impact they attempt to have on this historic confrontation. Both face obstacles from their own colleagues, first to being able to meet and, second, being able to join forces to convey Hitler’s specific plans to Chamberlain. In fact, one scene builds to a dramatic meeting with Chamberlain in which the two diplomats confront him. From history, the reader knows that the efforts of these two young men will prove ineffectual, but we read on to learn whether their effort to sabotage the Munich negotiations will be discovered and whether or how they will be punished.

History has judged the Munich mission a major failure based on false Allied hopes and German duplicity. A failure, especially, of Neville Chamberlain. But in this novel, Chamberlain is continually seen in a positive light. His views of Hitler are always forthright, never obsequious. Indeed, he is constantly cheered by German crowds during his public appearances in Munich, and then is later hailed by the English populace and the English press when he returns home. For he has saved both sides from the horrors of war by reluctantly accepting a limited German takeover of Czechslovkia. His rationale is that he has negotiated with Hitler in order to buy the time Britain needs to rebuild its depleted military.

Patrick Anderson sums up Harris’ approach to Chamberlain in his Washington Post review, writing that the novel “offers a painful look at an honorable man, longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions. …Chamberlain would be accused of appeasement,” Anderson continues, “but Harris sees a man haunted by hundreds of thousands of English deaths in World War I, barely 20 years earlier, and desperate to buy time.”

John Fund explains the author’s approach to this novel in National Review: “Harris has taken on a herculean task in trying to rehabilitate Chamberlain, and he makes a valiant attempt. In interviews promoting the book, he has said that his ‘slightly rebellious nature’ led him to challenge some sacred tablets about World War II. He said that when he was growing up in post-war Britain, it was rarely mentioned that four-fifths of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, that Stalin had killed far more people than Hitler, and that Britain had ten times the number of planes during the Battle of Britain that it had had at the time of Munich two years earlier. Harris said that these contradictions ‘have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland.’”

Given Harris’ past success in recreating history, not only in Fatherland, which depicts a world in which Germany has won World War II, but also in his successful novels set in ancient Rome, one should not be surprised that his “rebellious nature” in evaluating traditional history also prompted him to offer a different take on Chamberlain’s strategy in Munich.

In another interview, author Harris told NPR: “You couldn’t get two figures in history more unalike; and yet, contrary to popular myth, I think it’s Chamberlain that got the better of Hitler at Munich. Hitler did not want to be there. He wanted to be at the head of his army advancing on Prague.” In fact, Harris says that Albert Speer in his memoirs wrote that “ at a dinner party it all came pouring out [of Hitler]. He said the German people have been duped, and by Chamberlain of all people. And even at the end of his life in 1945, Hitler was saying, ‘We should have gone to war in 1938, September 1938 would have been the perfect time.’”

Given the terrible state of the British supply of fighter aircraft in 1938, this certainly has the ring of truth. And the result is that we can thank Robert Harris for another successful novel offering a refreshing view of history. Indeed, I look forward to many more. (July, 2019)

The Shot, by Philip Kerr

This is another take on the assassination of JFK. But not the one this reader was thinking about as he picked up this 1999 novel. This complicated but fascinating prequel to 11/22 in Dallas is set in 1960 just after the presidential election. Present, however, are many of the same participants who have long been implicated in the Dallas assassination. That is, the Mob, the Cubans, the FBI and the CIA, and an unknown, cold-blooded killer. But this killer is named Thomas Jefferson, and he is so cold blooded that while he is introduced as plotting to kill Fidel Castro for the Mob, he ends up plotting to kill the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, for the Cubans.

In 1960, the Mafia, under Sam Giancana, was angry at Fidel Castro for kicking them, with their profitable casinos, out of Cuba, while the U.S. government was even more angry because Fidel had turned Cuba into a Communist state. So in this novel the two sides join forces in a plot to kill the Cuban leader, finally settling on using Thomas Jefferson, who has proven in the past his skill at contract murders.

And then, there is an unexpected death, whereupon Tom Jefferson disappears, and the proposed Castro assassination is no longer in effect. Moreover, Jefferson has disappeared with a large Mafia down payment of $150,000 for killing Castro, and the Mob can’t let him get away with that when he has done nothing to earn it. So it sends an ex-FBI sleuth, Jimmy Nimmo, to find him. But the Mob also learns something else, that Jefferson has switched sides and intends to kill JFK, and they tell Nimmo that he cannot let that happen. For they are depending on the new president, whom they helped elect by packing the ballot boxes in Illinois, to dispose of Castro in the upcoming invasion of Cuba, and are convinced, moreover, because of their past ties to Kennedy’s father, that JFK will help them return to Cuba and run their casinos again.

It is all rather complicated, given that the Government and the Mob are collaborating so closely. Indeed, at their many planning sessions, it becomes difficult to determine where the actual loyalties lie for a mix of characters who represent both sides of the law. Which, in turn, often makes it difficult to recall these characters relationships, and why are doing what they are doing.

This is particularly true regarding Jimmy Nimmo, who takes over the entire center of this novel. We follow him as he seeks to find Thomas Jefferson and bring an end to the threat that Jefferson represents for both JFK and the Mob’s major plans for Cuba. However, when Nimmo himself comes to an inconclusive end, and it has no real impact on the novel’s assassination attempt on JFK in January, 1961, the reason for Nimmo presence in this novel suddenly seems quite calculated.

In fact, one wonders if the author has not turned Nimmo into a major character precisely to distract us from the latest activities of Jefferson and an old friend, and now an FBI operative, Alex Goldman. Especially when those two set up an assassination scenario in Harvard Yard. For the author then introduces a big surprise, a major twist. And the reader wonders why. Why have these friends acted as they have? What do they hope to achieve?

On the final pages the reason for their decision does become clear. Indeed, their actions project the reader forward to what will actually happen three years later on 11/22. But like much of the novel, as interested as we are in learning where author Kerr is going with this story, we also have to endure a long and complicated journey to reach this novel’s theory about what and who lay behind Kennedy’s actual assassination. In other words, we have witnessed, in this alternate history of 1960 and 1961, a proposed solution to the disputed events of 1963.

One reads this novel with the November, 1963 assassination always present in one’s mind. And one can see the application of the action here to that historic event. But the events here also seem very calculated, deliberately paralleling the rumored behind-the-scenes actions of 1963. They are convincing enough to be credible, but they also serve the novel’s suspense. And then also set up the twist. But while the twist makes logical and political sense here, it also requires a major reversal of character, a reversal that reflects a certain logic and yet at the same time fails to be convincing.

Kerr is a true professional as a writer, but one senses that he is writing here to convey a message. About the collaboration that might well have prompted the events of 1963. And then he adds the twist that all thriller writers like to offer at the climax of their work. In other words, the twist is not intended to apply to his behind-the-scenes portrait of the assassination. It is meant to stand on its own. And for the record, it does not last in one reader’s memory as long as does the collaboration between the Mafia and the U.S. government—and all that that relationship implies. (June, 2019)