Catalogue


Absent a miracle /
Christine Lehner.
imprint
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
description
ix, 482 p.
ISBN
0151014299 (hbk.), 9780151014293 (hbk.)
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
isbn
0151014299 (hbk.)
9780151014293 (hbk.)
catalogue key
6922847
A Look Inside
First Chapter
1
Alice Loses Whatever Jobs She Has
My name is Alice Ewen Fairweather. It used to be Alice Llovet Ewen, because Llovet was my mother’s maiden name. All three sisters got the same middle name. I would have liked a middle name of my own, and briefly lobbied for Hyacinth. I stopped using Llovet when I became a Fairweather. Why? Because I was madly in love.
     Given what happened, it would have been somewhat amusing if Llovet were still on my passport, because in Spanish, v and b are basically the same letter, writ small (b pequeño) or writ large (b grande).
 
About two months before Waldo and the boys went on vacation, I lost my job hosting The Dream Radio Show, Monday mornings for three hours on WBLT. (“Start your week by freeing up your subconscious. Tell me, Alice Fairweather, and our listeners in the tri-state area last night’s dream, and we’ll tell you the obvious.”)
     The events were not related in any way. I was sacked in December. You’d think that even the dimmest station manager would realize that it is especially in the trying holiday times that listeners need to be able to tell their dreams, live, and be reassured. But no, without the slightest consideration for the spirit of Baby Jesus or Rockefeller Center, Trudy Swatherton, in an act of generosity so rare it should have alerted me to the coming blow, took me to Joe’s Rib Joint, and then she fired me. She canceled my show and left the itchy dreamers of the region with no outlet, no airwaves, no listeners, no disembodied voice beckoning them to unload the lingering memories of weird and disturbing dreams.
     Trudy knew damn well I was a vegetarian and had been since the first mad cow scare. About the only things I could eat at Joe’s Dead Cow Emporium were fried mozzarella sticks and hush puppies. I would have eaten fish (cooked or otherwise) but none were on offer. I sat there, huddled there, beneath faux-antique wagon wheels, branding irons, cow skulls, and horns, and Trudy ordered a pitcher of beer for the two of us and told me that my skills were wasted in talk radio. I had no idea what skills she was referring to, and I’m sure neither did she. Trudy claimed she wanted to let me down gently, but I knew better. I knew that she was worried I would reveal what I knew of her dreams.
     People can rationalize all they want about the workings of the unconscious, but the truth is that we all feel somewhat responsible for the content of our dreams. And if our dreams are kinky or perverted or repulsive (and Trudy’s were all of these), then it must be inferred that we are kinky, perverted, or repulsive as well.
     I’m not a psychologist. For Dream Radio I’d had no qualifications whatsoever except a quick way with symbols and an empathetic nature. Well, I did have one thing: I was irrationally fascinated by dreams. I loved hearing people’s dreams. Like my listeners, I had spent years waking up with the glimmering of a memory of a dream that tantalized and then wanting more than anything to tell it to someone, to say it aloud as a way of sealing its occurrence while dispelling its unnerving connection to the conscious me. Like my listeners, I had found that most people’s eyes glazed over while their hands crept up to stifle the yawns. How many times had I said to Annabel and Audrey, “I had the weirdest dream. Do you want to hear it?” How many times had they answered, in unison or antiphonally, “No”? So many times that it was the morning mantra of our shared childhood. I fantasized that one day one of them would have a dream and want to share it, and then I would listen eagerly, I would be the Lady Bountiful who harbored no grudges but listened attentively to the fleeting images. That had never happened. So The Dream Radio Show was the perfect job for me. I was happy to hear the dreams of perfect strangers, those strangers who were perfectly happy to tell me their dreams, what they could recall of them, because they knew I was interested. I had lots of repeat callers, and very few cranks. For those listeners who needed to hear it, I told them not to blame themselves for the occasional sick narratives or morbid surreal dramas that lingered in the morning. In this, they didn’t believe me, no more than Trudy did. But they wanted to hear the reassurances. Apparently, being appalled by what one didn’t even know one was thinking was part of the thrill.
     During my four years at WBLT, our listeners had sent countless testimonials to the station, and over and over they had said that one of the most reassuring things about the show was that I was not a psychologist. That I was just like them: occasionally a dreamer, occasionally an insomniac, sometimes paranoid but always justified in being so, and benignly compulsive. I never tired of sharing these letters with Waldo and Ezra and Henry. They listened to them just as they listened to my dreams, with apparent interest and goodwill. They also made fun of me, but that seemed a small price to pay for the attention. Waldo liked to point out how my subconscious made puns. I told him that after all our years together, I still craved to hear his dreams.
     At Joe’s Carne Cafeteria, somewhere on my way from the table to the street door, the hiccups arrived. Somewhere in there, my poor vagus nerve (the wanderer, the nomad, the slippery hobo) became irritated and ka-bang (thirty-five milliseconds, so they say), the glottis snapped shut. I hate the hiccups, and I particularly hate getting the hiccups in front of someone like Trudy because I will try to mask them and pretend I don’t have them, and that only makes them worse and prolongs the agony. Adios, Trudy. Adieu, Joe’s Carne Crematorium. Au revoir, lovely WBLT.
     I swallowed and tried to still the body jerks. I took a deep breath and imagined lead weights attached to my feet, keeping me rooted. I found I was in front of St. Winifred’s on Seventh, and I went inside. I pulled open the heavy doors, and the darkness hit like a weather front. I stood still and let my eyes adjust, then moved into the nave and sat in a pew on the right. I exhaled. Had it always been there? Or had it just begun? The organ. There would be a longish baroque passage, and then the music would stop abruptly; rustling would signal the turning of pages, and then the music would start once more. Sometimes the same lovely passage, again and again. Sometimes another piece of music. I knew none of it and it was all beautiful, all surely written to raise the listeners’ thoughts heavenward and, on this nasty December afternoon, succeeding in just that. After a long while I twisted my head around and peered at the choir loft. The organ’s pipes loomed over the dim church interior. The railing hid the organist. No one else was there. Not another soul. How was this possible? It must have been the organist’s practice hour, and I had just happened into the most peaceful and melodious spot in the entire city, when I needed it most. I even slept a bit, and dreamed of anthropomorphized vegetables (carrots, onions, and beets) copulating on Posey’s Blue Willow plates while Henry played Ping-Pong on the kitchen table, the ball mere inches above them. But of course there was no extant radio show on which I could tell my troubling dreams to eager listeners.
     The hiccups were gone. Thanks to the organ, I could take the train home without the weeping that seemed to embarrass fellow commuters. At home, Waldo and the boys were sympathetic. It must have struck them that without the Dream Radio Show, I would look to them, conveniently located at my own breakfast table, to satisfy my dream fascination. Waldo bit his tongue and did not repeat that I was practicing dreamology without a license or that my degree had been acquired by dialing 1-800-JUNG-R-US.
     Henry said, “Tell me again why she took you to the Rib Joint. I think that is the most egregious of all. Actionable, I think.”
     For years Waldo and I had locked bemused eyes every time Henry had used one of the hundreds of vocabulary words he could not possibly have picked up at school and probably not even from us. But that time was past. Henry was now eight, and we were in awe of him.
     Ezra, though ten, still crawled into my lap and said, “I’ll tell you all my dreams, Mom. I think you’re the best.”
     Right around then Waldo’s mother called.
     “I’ve just been reading about this hapless person who was mauled by his very own pet tiger. Really gruesome stuff.”
     “I think I missed this one, Posey,” I said.
     “I am so very, very pleased that you and Waldo have dogs. Dogs would never do anything like that.”
     “Well, actually —”
     “Naturally I’m not referring to the Diebenkorns or the Rottenweiners. People like us don’t have dogs like that,” she said.
     I tried again. “I don’t think it’s quite that simple —”
     “I’m only saying it’s a matter of what we’re used to. And we’re used to friendly dogs. Dogs you can sleep with in a pinch.”
     It was a family truism that Posey Fairweather, née Pinchbeck, frequently did not know how she sounded. She Doesn’t Know How She Sounds, one of us would mouth to strangers at weddings or on train platforms. She Doesn’t Know What That Means.
     On the other side of the kitchen, Flirt and Dandy were curled up together on their plaid cushion, Dandy’s slender nose resting on his sister’s back, their breathing in unison, their aspect benign. They were taking a break, apparently, from their mutual inspection and licking of each other’s genitals.
     Posey had a point; she often did. That was the scary thing.
     “This poor fellow had gotten this tiger as a baby, but it grew too large, as tigers are prone to do, and so he kept it in the next-door apartment, and each day opened the door just enough to toss in a few raw chickens. Just this once the tiger pushed the door wide open and mauled him. I’ve always said cats were untrustworthy.”
     “Would you like to speak with Waldo? He’s right here.” I handed the phone over, but Henry intercepted it.
     Now the rest of us could go back to whatever we were doing — castigating WBLT for their shortsighted employment policies and wondering what would happen to all the dreamers of our metropolitan region who were not blessed, as I was, with Waldo and the boys, who each morning gave the impression of genuine interest when I said over my granola and blueberries: “I had the strangest dream last night.”
     Now, however, Posey would find out that I had been fired, and I really didn’t want her to know that just yet. I didn’t want to talk about it with someone who thought I’d been wasting my talents all along. But just what were those talents, anyway?
     How often in life does one have the perfect job? Well, I had. I’d had it and I’d lost it.
     About a month after that I started eating meat again, not very much and not very often, but somewhere in there was a palpable shift from the vegetable world to the world of flesh.
 
Waldo got paid to think of new and better ways to do the same old things, as well as of ways to do the things that were not generally considered possible. He got paid to tinker around with tools and tubes and hoses and grommets and items I could never name. Whenever forms required you to write in your occupation, Waldo got to write inventor. He worked for the research and development department of DSG Corporation, so called because their first successful product was a device that removed dust particles from the air in manufacturing plants, a device that was called the Dust-Sucking Gizmo, or DSG. He’d first worked for them in the city, but as they expanded, they moved the R & D department up the Hudson to Thumbtown, at which point we too moved and bought our house in VerGroot, two towns over. Dust sucking was naturally something of a specialty at DSG, and Waldo’s first commercially successful invention was the Automatic Auto-Suction Friend. People with allergies loved Waldo. He was occasionally invited to speak at the Allergens of America annual conference, which was always held in May because that was National Allergy Prevention Month. Since I rarely went to the allergy conference, I never knew if Waldo shared his brilliant limericks with his sneezing audience, rhyming pollen with swollen and rhyming who knows what else, dander, philander, slander, and oleander. I assumed he did because of course that would only increase his desirability as a speaker.
 
Two months before the WBLT debacle, I had lost my other part-time job, teaching high school English to troubled girls at Our Lady of Precious Blood Academy. The semester had barely begun when Mother Apollonia told me the diocese had radically altered the English curriculum. Henceforth, my extensive knowledge of the writings and lives of the Catholic converts, especially, but not exclusively, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Thomas Merton, was no longer required. Henceforth, the school would be sticking to the tried-and-true narratives of the saints: Augustine’s Confessions, Theresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, and John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. I was as big an admirer of those texts as anyone, as I told Mother Apollonia, but I thought the girls in her care might need something else, something slightly more contemporary and accessible. And even more than that, I thought they needed to read stories that made it clear just how flawed most Catholics and most humans were, and yet all still deserving of grace. I argued for a more nuanced and entertaining view of the Mystical Body of Christ, and I was turned down.
     I was fond of my students at Precious Blood. They were resilient and vulnerable, full of wisdom and full of shit. We had developed this weird pattern — which may have been another reason the diocese got rid of me, but how could they have known? — such that in almost every class one girl would make a great show of resting her head upon her desk and sobbing, twitching, or groaning. Then another girl would solicitously ask what was the matter. A long narrative would ensue, usually involving a cruel, fickle, and witless boyfriend; or a terminally ill mother; or an imprisoned brother; or a drunken, abusive father. Presumably the first time this happened, the story told was true, and probably even the second and third time. But soon they were complete fictions. It’s true  that I realized this long after the girls did, but I did finally realize it. Yet we continued. The girls continued with their theatrical poses, and their earnest questionings. We all continued to listen, even and especially as the stories became more and more  out-landish. In my last month of employment at Precious Blood, my eleventh-grade class was regaled with escalating stories that went from the perfidious boyfriend who seduced the student’s younger sister, to a boyfriend seducing a student’s fraternal (as in “male”) twin, to a boyfriend seducing a student’s mother. It was beyond my capacities not to admire their inventiveness: details that included the contents of the boyfriend’s pockets and his brother’s favorite TV shows, and dialogue that was elaborate, colloquial, and often derivative of great literature (“I smell a hamster” or “You’re nothing but a handful of dust”). These Homerically inclined girls would have great futures, if only I knew what they were. If only I could help them get there.
     For almost four years I’d had these two part-time jobs, both of which had seemed ideal, as part-time jobs went, if you didn’t consider how little I
I was paid. Aside from that, they were interesting and worthwhile — I thought they were worthwhile — and allowed me to be home by three in the afternoon, when Ezra and Henry returned from school, hungry and briefly ebullient. Was it that I’d been too pleased with myself? Had I neglected the all-important knocking on wood that Mami had drummed into us along with a fondness for nuts and figs? What if I had brought this double-whammy of dismissals upon myself?
     One of my favorite girls at Precious Blood was Angela Sitwell. Angela made Mother Apollonia nervous; the mother superior knew Angela was up to no good, but she could never catch her in flagrante. Angela had a style all her own, and unnerving courage. She had two distinguishing marks, and she wore them both proudly: a vivid port-wine stain shaped like the Central American isthmus on her left temple, and her missing sixth finger.
     One day I brought Ezra and Henry to school with me. The first thing Angela said was “Have you guys ever shaken hands with someone with six fingers?” Of course they had not, not that they knew of, not that I knew of, and suddenly their lives seemed emptier and paler without that very experience. In one moment Angela had created in their contented, privileged lives a void that only she could fill.
     Angela let them trace with their small fingers the almost invisible scar that was all that remained of the sixth finger of her left hand. They couldn’t get enough of it. Ezra in particular begged me to take him with me to my classes at Precious Blood, but scheduling was always hard. After all, he had school too.
     So when I was canned from Dream Radio I had the sick satisfaction of assuming that now, finally, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong, and in spades. I’d lost two jobs for which I’d had no recognizable qualifications but was good at anyway. I had no idea what I would do next. If Waldo was such a great inventor, and I had no doubt that he was, couldn’t he invent a job for me? If he could invent open-space videos for MRIs, magic magnetic moving picture hooks, a battery-operated wind-resistant umbrella, self-folding tortillas, and the Automatic Auto-Suction Friend, then surely he could come up with something I could do, that I might be able to do.
     Apparently, putting me to use was a lot harder than inventing a device that allows one’s car to automatically vacuum itself.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2009-04-13:
Alice Fairweather, a Californian transplanted to the New York City suburbs with her Harvard-educated, Maine-born husband and their two precocious sons, undergoes a major transformation in Lehner's unpleasantly overstuffed latest. An unexpected visit from her husband's college roommate, Abelardo Llobet Carvajal, who is seeking to canonize his great aunt, sets Alice on a journey to Nicaragua. Although the author has imbued her characters with charming eccentricities-husband Waldo is an inventor with a fondness for limericks; one son, Henry, tends to speak in thesaurus-ese ("hypogeal" and "egregious"); the other son, Ezra, lives "fully in his sleep"; and Alice has an interest in dreams that parlays into a part-time radio hosting job where she interprets callers' dreams-there is a bewildering lack of depth and connection between the characters, who come across mainly as anthropomorphized collections of quirks. Add in an unwieldy plot that includes marital infidelity, dream interpretation, the exigencies of upper-crust life in Maine, the obstacles to canonization, Nicaraguan politics, coffee-bean farming, suicide, Catholic guilt, snow blindness and canine blood donation, and you've got something of an unholy mess that never quite pulls itself together. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Reviews
Review Quotes
"Pure, unadulterated adulterous entertainment."
"A delightful romp through one woman's life . . . Anyone who loves to look up words in a dictionary, play games at the dinner table, and find humor in even the darker corners of life should read this book."
Praise for WHAT TO WEAR TO SEE THE POPE "An original voice, captivating, convincing."--Boston Globe "This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, serious and funny, which seems a rare combination in much of today's literary world . . ."--St. Louis Post-Dispatch "A delightful romp through one woman's life . . . Anyone who loves to look up words in a dictionary, play games at the dinner table, and find humor in even the darker corners of life should read this book."--The Charlotte Observer
Praise for WHAT TO WEAR TO SEE THE POPE "An original voice, captivating, convincing."-- Boston Globe "This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, serious and funny, which seems a rare combination in much of today's literary world . . ."-- St. Louis Post-Dispatch "A delightful romp through one woman's life . . . Anyone who loves to look up words in a dictionary, play games at the dinner table, and find humor in even the darker corners of life should read this book."-- The Charlotte Observer
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Publishers Weekly, April 2009
Booklist, July 2009
New York Times Full Text Review, October 2009
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Summaries
Main Description
Alice Fairweather, a lapsed Catholic who lives in upstate New York with her two sons and philandering husband (whom she loves to distraction), has just lost her dream job as a radio talk show hostess. When one of the family dogs suddenly becomes gravely ill, Alice opts out of a family spelunking vacation to nurse the pooch. Unexpectedly, her husband’s charismatic Nicaraguan Harvard roommate, Abelardo-coffee planter, failed seminarian, and scion of an old Nicaraguan family-comes to visit as part of his quest to have his aunt canonized as the first Nicaraguan saint. Through a variety of somewhat bizarre and miraculous events, Abelardo must return home to his village before his canonization work is complete. But Alice, with time on her hands and a void to fill, adopts Abelardo’s mission and becomes obsessed with helping him find the path to sanctify his ancestor. Not only does she befriend Hubert, the eccentric man in charge of New York’s hagiography club, she becomes somewhat of an expert on the various women who have achieved the distinction of sainthood, and soon finds herself on a plane destined for Nicaragua. Abelardo’s quest to canonize his aunt, together with Alice’s quest to save her marriage, makes for a miraculous story of love, loss, and faith.
Main Description
Alice Fairweather, a lapsed Catholic who lives in upstate New York, becomes obsessed with her friend Abelardo's quest to canonize his aunt. This mission, along with Alice's quest to save her marriage, makes for a miraculous story of love, loss, and faith.
Main Description
Alice Fairweather, a lapsed Catholic who lives in upstate New York with her two sons and philandering husband (whom she loves to distraction), has just lost her dream job as a radio talk show hostess. When one of the family dogs suddenly becomes gravely ill, Alice opts out of a family spelunking vacation to nurse the pooch. Unexpectedly, her husband's charismatic Nicaraguan Harvard roommate, Abelardocoffee planter, failed seminarian, and scion of an old Nicaraguan familycomes to visit as part of his quest to have his aunt canonized as the first Nicaraguan saint. Through a variety of somewhat bizarre and miraculous events, Abelardo must return home to his village before his canonization work is complete. But Alice, with time on her hands and a void to fill, adopts Abelardo's mission and becomes obsessed with helping him find the path to sanctify his ancestor. Not only does she befriend Hubert, the eccentric man in charge of New York's hagiography club, she becomes somewhat of an expert on the various women who have achieved the distinction of sainthood, and soon finds herself on a plane destined for Nicaragua.Abelardo's quest to canonize his aunt, together with Alice's quest to save her marriage, makes for a miraculous story of love, loss, and faith.
Main Description
Alice Fairweather, a lapsed Catholic who lives in upstate New York with her two sons and philandering husband (whom she loves to distraction), has just lost her dream job as a radio talk show hostess. When one of the family dogs suddenly becomes gravely ill, Alice opts out of a family spelunking vacation to nurse the pooch. Unexpectedly, her husband's charismatic Nicaraguan Harvard roommate, Abelardo--coffee planter, failed seminarian, and scion of an old Nicaraguan family--comes to visit as part of his quest to have his aunt canonized as the first Nicaraguan saint. Through a variety of somewhat bizarre and miraculous events, Abelardo must return home to his village before his canonization work is complete. But Alice, with time on her hands and a void to fill, adopts Abelardo's mission and becomes obsessed with helping him find the path to sanctify his ancestor. Not only does she befriend Hubert, the eccentric man in charge of New York's hagiography club, she becomes somewhat of an expert on the various women who have achieved the distinction of sainthood, and soon finds herself on a plane destined for Nicaragua.Abelardo's quest to canonize his aunt, together with Alice's quest to save her marriage, makes for a miraculous story of love, loss, and faith.
Main Description
Alice Fairweather, a lapsed Catholic who lives in upstate New York with her two sons and philandering husband (whom she loves to distraction), has just lost her dream job as a radio talk show hostess. When one of the family dogs suddenly becomes gravely ill, Alice opts out of a family spelunking vacation to nurse the pooch. Unexpectedly, her husband's charismatic Nicaraguan Harvard roommate, Abelardo-coffee planter, failed seminarian, and scion of an old Nicaraguan family-comes to visit as part of his quest to have his aunt canonized as the first Nicaraguan saint. Through a variety of somewhat bizarre and miraculous events, Abelardo must return home to his village before his canonization work is complete. But Alice, with time on her hands and a void to fill, adopts Abelardo's mission and becomes obsessed with helping him find the path to sanctify his ancestor. Not only does she befriend Hubert, the eccentric man in charge of New York's hagiography club, she becomes somewhat of an expert on the various women who have achieved the distinction of sainthood, and soon finds herself on a plane destined for Nicaragua. Abelardo's quest to canonize his aunt, together with Alice's quest to save her marriage, makes for a miraculous story of love, loss, and faith.

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