Today’s post features my favorite read of 2017: The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott. I’m trying hard to be fair to the other novel in today’s post, which most of my couples’ book club enjoyed. But you could read between the lines.
(Essay first published in NFocus, January 2018.)
Winter comes for us, if we’re lucky – the winter of our lives – yet our desires and hungers remain, sometimes altered, sometimes the same. The best novelists illuminate the loves that drive us and give meaning to our lives over time.
Two lions of the literary establishment are out with new novels that explore love over time in profoundly different ways – Alice McDermott, in The Ninth Hour, and Mark Helprin, in Paris in the Present Tense. If McDermott’s novel is as hushed and sleek as a great cat at night, hunting, Helprin’s instead is a long, fierce roar.
The Ninth Hour tells the story of a young Catholic widow in a Brooklyn tenement, pregnant with her first child and destitute. Sister St. Saviour comes to her aid, securing her employment in the order’s laundry. There the widow raises her infant daughter in the community of nuns. Sister Illuminata and Sister Jeanne care for mother and daughter with unbridled, imperfect love, but over time, both mother and daughter seek love outside the convent walls as well.
What is the antidote to pain, the book asks? Is love both comfort and hunger? McDermott does not shy away from frank sexuality, but it is only one kind of love explored with subtlety, power, and restraint in The Ninth Hour.
The Ninth Hour honors a past of Catholic nuns serving the poor in the early twentieth century at a moment when their numbers had already begun to diminish but their power in their communities had not.
Paris in the Present Tense, set in current day Paris but stretching back to the Nazi occupation, honors and remembers Jewish suffering and highlights current anti-Semitism in France. It’s also hot and heavy with sexual desire.
Seventy-four year old Jules LaCour, a music professor, still deeply grieves the loss of his wife Jacqueline several years earlier. Yet he falls in love at first sight with Elodie, a cellist 50 years his junior and his student (he understands that this is an inappropriate love, not to be consummated).
At the same time, he is preoccupied with his grandson’s leukemia. For the first time in his life, Jules is looking for a way to get rich quick, in order to fund better medical treatment for his grandson.
Grief, sexual desire, and worldly ambition lead to desperate plans, and the book picks up steam as it heads towards a climax you both dread and somehow wish for. Helprin writes with his trademark virtuosity and verbosity and rapturous descriptions of interior and exterior landscapes.
McDermott and Helprin, at the height of their powers, write with respect and awe about the love that defines and drives us, enlivens, empowers us – love, the lion within.
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The January 2018 issue of Nfocus is on stands now.
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Photo credit here.