Friday, January 17, 2014

What Did the Book Club Think of Liam Callanan's "All Saints"?

In Liam Callanan's 2007 novel, All Saints, Emily Hamilton is a theology teacher at All Saints High School in Southern California. In her early fifties, one might say she’s been through the wringer (corrected per Sharon!). Pregnant as a teenager, she was sent to a retreat to hide out with the baby, befriending a hermit that camped out on the grounds. That didn’t end that well. She’s also had three husbands, all in the past.

Now in the midst of her school year, she’s become caught in the lives of three of her students, Edgar, Paul, and Cecily. Not so much a love triangle, but a quadrilateral of desire, with Edgar radiating sexual curiosity and desire in several directions. And then there’s her supervisor, Father Martin, whose flirtations play out on cigarette breaks.

Emily is one messed up woman, looking for truth in her middle years, contemplating the lives of saints, but struggling to get beyond her still adolescent impulses. Perhaps if all these folks had been in their fifties, it would have been more like the dalliance with Martin. But no, Edgar, Paul, and Cecily each impulsively make decisions that affect each other’s lives.

So what did the book club think? For one thing, Emily was quite a struggle. You can tell by the end of the book that Callanan likes Emily in spite of her flaws. Not to be too theological, but I think the creator (author) saw the grace in his character that us heathen-like bystanders couldn’t always understand. Everyone in the book fell under her spell. All the teens gravitated towards her. Edgar’s father wanted to date her. Three men married her and her flawed radiance could turn a priest. But we were all pretty much in agreement that though Emily saw herself as perceptive, she turned out to have a problem judging characters and situations.

There are some of us who started that recurring conversation about whether men can write strong and true women characters. I almost see this as a prejudice, and amusingly enough, almost never hear the complaint that women can’t write men characters. I think that would be un-PC and somehow disparaging a woman writer’s talent. That said, several attendees thought that Emily didn’t quite work as a woman, particularly in the way she sort of led her life with sexual desire. As G. noted, a woman might enter into a sexual relationship with a male student, but her motivations would likely be different.

This led to another disagreement. Emily clearly crossed the sexual line with Edgar, but seemed not to be concerned with the legal ramifications. Several of us recalled when it went from being scandalous to illegal to have sex with a student, even when he or she was of age. It would be sometime in the 1980s. At least one of my high school instructors and college professors each ran off and married a student. But contemporary society (this actually originated in Feminist literature, right?) has come to understand the power dynamics of teacher-student relationships similar to that of boss-employee, and now sees them as unfair and unhealthy.

I guess we could be wrong, but the book seemed to be set in the 2000s, when this issue seemed settled. To me, there was no other reason why this book couldn’t have been set in the past. And not only would it have made the sexual dalliance if not sympathetic (we all judge the past by the standards of the present, after all), it would have made all that smoking more plausible. Smoking is a great metaphor for sex, but it’s hard to imagine so many different types of characters smoking in a contemporary novel. Did I mention how fascinated I was to find students recently more disturbed by a teenager smoking in Evelina Galang’s novel than they were by violence and sexual situations?

And what of Henry the hermit and Emily’s three husbands, Gil, Andrew, and Gavin? Their stories come out in the course of the book, and at least for a few of them, Emily’s bad judgment affects their lives as well. For some of them, their almost seems to be a saint-like narrative to their life stories. But I guess we’d have to reserve modern sainthood for Emily’s friends Claire and Barbara, the two sisters who lost body parts defending the downtrodden in El Salvador. One wouldn’t expect the current church to deify such folks, but hey, things change. Look at the posthumous fate of Pope Formosus.

S. and others (including our buyer Jason) are big fans of Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas, a seemingly very different historical novel about the plan by the Japanese to bomb the United States via hot-air balloon. The story is through the eyes of a 70-something priest and one Japanese boy who stows away in one of the balloons. Very different stories, but it’s not hard to see the connections.

I thought we were handicapped by not having an attendee who was fluent in Catholic tradition. I think of Callanan as a writer who uses his Catholic identity as background for his work, at least for his two novels. The Cloud Atlas has its 70-something priest and All Saints has its Catholic school teacher, several priests (I’d say at least three of note) and a lot of saints. But none of us knew the story of Pope Formosus or most of the other saints. And this led to a pondering about Emily’s stunted adolescence—was this the church’s doing?

While I would hardly call myself an expert on contemporary Catholic fiction, Emily’s grace seemed to resonate with me a bit more than some of the other attendees. I thought of the work of Valerie Sayers, who visited Boswell last fall for her newest book, structured as a conversation with Callanan. I thought of two books that reminded me of this book in theme, the intense J.F. Powers’ Wheat that Springeth Green and the somewhat lighter but equally resonant novel, The Monk Downstairs, from Tim Farrington.*

But truthfully, the author who most influenced me was the very commercial (and rather polarizing) Father Andrew Greeley, whom I worked with at my publicity job decades ago. We were encouraged to be knowledgeable about his work, and I believe I read seven of his novels. In some ways, these sprawling, commercial potboilers couldn’t be farther from the intimate and intricately woven style of All Saints. But there’s something about Emily that I think would have resonated with the late priest, a good person making bad decisions.

Regarding the Catholic imagery and Callananan’s motivations and inspirations, J. had a theory, which I haven't come across anywhere else. She saw Father Martin as a stand-in for Thomas Merton, and Emily as the person Merton had an affair with late in life. As the only one among us who’d even read The Seven Story Mountain, she did not have anyone to bounce this idea off of, but it was our biggest idea of the evening, so we got very excited. This also would explain the reason why Emily had to be a woman character here. I’m going to throw myself into the conversation and say that I disagreed with the crowd that Emily did not make a plausible woman; picturing her as a man, she becomes far more implausible.

So you probably have as many questions as we do. I’ve found an interview with Callanan. When asked by Riverwest Currents what his book was about, he replied: “Same thing as the first book: belief. Now, the first book was also about Japanese balloon bombs in WWII and this new book is about a co-ed Catholic high school in Southern California , so ostensibly they’ve got nothing in common. But to me, belief is the tissue that binds them together. Not just belief in God, but what it means to believe in someone, something, invisible, intangible, a friendship, a love, a connection.”

Bernadette Murphy in the Los Angeles Times, in her review ponders this as well: “Though human fallibility and frailty are at the heart of the two books -- both feature priests in starring roles -- "All Saints asks a very private question: How do you move forward in life when faced with your own failures?”

I know that All Saints had a very strong review in People Magazine (3.5 stars). You can read it here. "Harboring secrets more cancerous than the cigarettes she sneaks, Hamilton seems bent on self-destruction. Callanan's achievement is to make it perfectly clear why: she's human."

Now Liam Callanan is not the normal author of a normal book we read in our abnormal book club. He's a professor at UW Milwaukee and a great friend of the store, and yes, he's done a lot of book clubs. So I asked him what's with Emily, and he told me something very interesting. His experience is that women of Emily's age and older do not take to Emily, but younger women in their twenties and thirties have a much more positive reaction. As he notes, the tetchy (what a great word!) heroine is part of literature, most recently in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs (due shortly in paperback).

Regarding the time period, he did not find it an issue. Edgar is of age, so even though the school has rules about student-teacher dalliances, it's still more of an ethical question than a truly legal one. There are many things you can be fired for at a job that are not illegal. And Callanan is quick to note that Emily certainly pays consequences for her transgression.

In the end, we wound up having a great conversation about All Saints. Whatever folks thought about the protagonist, there wasn’t a person present who wasn’t glad to have read the book after talking about it. And we’re all looking forward to Callanan’s next novel.

Here's the info on our next two meetings, both at 7 pm at Boswell:
On Monday, February 3, we dive into Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being
On Monday, March 3, our selection is Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers.

*I would have made the connection to the late Jon Hassler, but I never read him.

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