For the next week or so I’ll be offering passages from some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. Most of the books were published this year. Most of the books are by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but there are also authors who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in a doorway. In short, they’re here because I enjoyed their books and I think you will, too.
MATTERS OF FAITH by Kristy Kiernan, Berkley Books, 2008.
The turning points in my life have always arrived disguised as daily life. I never get the opportunity or have the sixth sense to stop and examine them, to time-stamp them on my soul, to whisper to myself that this, this thing, this simple boat ride in the Everglades, this phone ringing, this drive home twenty minutes late, was the thing that might do me in.
They never appear important enough to stop the things I’m already doing — like sparring with my husband over the developing nothingness of our marriage, like mixing the right amount of red into a fire sky painting, like sitting down at my computer and reading an e-mail from my son.
“He’s coming home for spring break,” I called down to Cal through the open window, scanning Marshall’s message for more information. “And he’s bringing someone with him.”
“I can’t hear you,” Cal yelled back, the hollow, river rush of water beating against the house for a moment. I read the rest of the e-mail, committing the pertinent facts to memory as a flutter in my stomach began to make itself known, before I headed downstairs andout the kitchen door. The edge of the screen caught the back of my heel before I could get out of its way.
Cal, shirtless and browned, his shorts riding low enough to expose a strip of white skin, squinted at mne as he hosed off two bright blue coolers. “What’s up?”
“Marshall’s coming home for spring break,” I repeated, surveying the sparkle of fish scales caught in the crisp grass at the sides of the driveway like diamonds in straw. “And he’s bringing company.”
“The Dalai Lama?” Cal asked, flipping a cooler over and sending a rush of tepid water over my bare feet.
“A girl,” I said, and was rewarded for my timing with a squiret of water up my calves. Cal turned to me in surprise, a smile flashing quick and white across his face. I grinned back, raising my eyebrows, a joke, half-formed, about to spill out, before I remembered that we weren’t joking much these days.
“Really? A girl?”
“Ada,” I said, the unfamiliar name hard on my tongue, a good complement wrapped in the downy softness of Marshall. “She’s pre-law.”
“What else is she?” Cal asked, turning back to his coolers.
“He didn’t say.”
“That’s new. And you didn’t ask?”
I didn’t answer the criticism, not nearly as subtle as his word ssuggested. The method our son took to find himself was a never-ending fracture, but it was a method I was open-minded enough to indulge, and one Cal barely abided. The possibilities of Ada’s religious affiliation skated through my mind as I watched him move on to the next cooler, sluicing the remains of his second fishing tour of the day across the drive.
“What should I do about the sleeping arrangements?” I asked.
“Put her in your office and let them sneak around.”
“Nice. I’ll ask Marshall. Good trip today?”
He shrugged and flipped the second cooler over before turning the hose on himself, talking behind the water cascading down through his hair and across his face. “Couple of idiots from Minnesota. Talked about ice fishing the whole time. They want to go out tomorrow, but they wouldn’t put on any sunscreen, so I’m pretty sure I’ve got the day off.”
His words dimmed out, as Cal’s stories about paper-white Yankees were destined to after twenty years of marriage. I imagine he barely heard my talk about warping Upson board or paint loss on a Highwayman painting these days.
I envisioned a girl named Ada. She would be sturdy, blonde, and no taller than I. Trying to fit Marshall beside this Ada in my imagination was harder work. He’d never brought a girl home before.
Boys, there’d always been boys. Interesting boys he sought out when he was tired of being Jewish, or Buddhist, or Methodist. Earnest-looking boys who wore various amulets and indicators of their faith, who Marshall engaged in fascinating theological discussions over dinner. Fascinating to me, anyway. Cal, his fire-and-brimstone minister father never far from his mind, would leave the table, taking his plate to the living room, where he’d turn up the television loud enough that those of us left in the dining room would fall silent, intent on our food.
I was proud of Marshall. He was curious, about this world and the possibility of the next. Curiosity was an admirable trait, one my own parents cultivated in me. Meghan, our daughter, was as curious as Marshall and I were about the world. And she was due home any second.
This opening is a really good, efficient bit of scene setting. After only three pages, we know everything we need to know about the family situation and the tense, fraying marriage, and we’ve been shown some of the larger issues that will drive the story. Starting with something as simple and homey as a child with severe food allergies, Kiernan creates a tightly structured, engrossing drama about the limits of forgiveness and religious faith.