Christine Lehner, Absent a Miracle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)
Christine Lehner’s third novel, Absent a Miracle, is witty, warm, and funny. It successfully blends several different kinds of fiction, echoing (without aping) Anne Tyler’s beautifully observed tales of domestic life, Junot Diaz’s creative use of Latin American history and myth, and Jane Smiley’s avid depictions of sex and the human body. Ms. Lehner explores various themes entertainingly and insightfully—among them, the mysterious rituals and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, including the process of canonization, the pleasures and difficulties of family life, the nature of faith, the implacability of sexual jealousy, and the definition of a miracle.
The novel is primarily written from the perspective of Alice Fairweather, a woman who manages to have interesting adventures and a compelling interior life despite spending an inordinate amount of time doting on her imperfect husband, Waldo, and their too-perfect young sons. Waldo is less a fully developed character than an idol unworthy of his wife’s worship, and her adorably precocious boys are appealing but fantastical—never once do they fight with one another, and never once do they deliberately antagonize their mother, though their implausible perfection might well antagonize readers with more human children.
Alice sustains our interest because her experiences force us to examine uncomfortable questions. The author’s view of marriage is decidedly less rosy than her view of parenthood, and her heroine’s unwavering devotion to a less-than-faithful husband and a less-than-ideal marriage is, at times, puzzling. Alice’s thoughts on the subject reveal a fundamental uncertainty about her relationship in particular and marital relationships in general, which the novel addresses but never resolves. While seducing her husband one night, Alice wonders, “Wasn’t that what marriage was all about? Being able to have sex in the middle of the night and not have to engage in conversation? Not entering the void? Or filling the void? Which was it?” We are told that Alice has initiated this sexual encounter in order to escape an “implacable void” she “feared slipping into,” to avoid the “black hole” from which she “backed away with horror, lest it suck [her] in.” Is this love, or neurotic dependence? Is there a difference?
Ms. Lehner is guilty of excessive quirkiness in the form of precious names and nicknames, puns, limericks, and other word play, as well as a surfeit of eccentric characters with unusual occupations and obsessions (inventors, hagiographers, confessional radio show hosts, and saints) who frequently succumb to bizarre deaths and exotic medical emergencies (suicide by drowning, death by shark attack, dengue fever). This affectation would be more grating in a lesser writer. But Ms. Lehner loves language and uses it inventively, creatively, precisely, and beautifully. She is devoted to her characters and truly knowledgeable about the people, places, and things she so vividly describes, from Grand Central Terminal and the residents of the tiny fictional town of VerGroot to the daily operations of a coffee farm in Nicaragua (she wrote her first novel while living on a coffee plantation in Costa Rica). Such genuine and informed passion for her subjects is lovely to behold and difficult to resist.