Sue Reidy,
The Visitation
(Scribner, 2000)

Theresa and Catherine Flynn are your stereotypical Catholic schoolgirls, wearing plaid skirts and pigtails, and oppressed by nuns who describe Hell in vivid detail every time they commit a small sin. (After all, how big of a sin can a 7-year-old commit?) They're growing up with a devout father, a mother who converted in order to marry, and a gaggle of brothers and sisters, since their mother is almost incessantly pregnant.

It would seem, on the outset, that Theresa and Catherine are pretty normal. Until, of course, you consider that instead of playing with dolls, they act out scenes from "The Lives of the Saints," including grizzly death scenes of virgin martyrs, for fun. Or that one day, while playing, they're visited by the Virgin Mary herself, who gives them a letter to personally deliver to the Pope. Which would be fine and good, if their father didn't rewrite the letter afterward to change the intent to something more dogmatic.

Luckily, this book can stand on the merits of the bizarre cast of characters that Reidy has created, because, to be honest, if this work was more plot-driven, the plot would be too thin and stretched out to carry its own weight. As it stands, the crazy roster keeps things interesting while Reidy shows us snapshots of the two girls as they mature from pre-teens to college girls. The details (such as Catherine deciding arbitrarily to become a nun before deciding, ultimately, that she's a lesbian instead) are just weird enough to be interesting, just offbeat enough to be real.

The book does seem to lose focus in the middle somewhere, though. The Visitation started out as a short story, and it seems to me that while Reidy was expanding it into this relatively average-sized novel, she may have gone in another direction in her writing. In fact, the main plotline (Mary's visitation of the two girls and the convoluted web of religion and dogma that keeps the message from getting to where it should) isn't even mentioned for several chapters as the girls grow up.

Don't get me wrong -- this book is actually pretty great beach fare, especially for anyone who was subjected to a Catholic upbringing (and has rebelled ... devout Catholics may find it heretical). Parts of its screwball plot will have you giggling audibly, and the characters will stay with you long after the covers are closed. As long as you aren't looking for high art or a sold, plot-based story, and can stand taking the long way around to get to the end, you would probably enjoy this book.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 16 March 2002

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