Modern Lit: Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen

Mariette in Ecstasy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first decade of the 20th century in a small town in New York.  Mariette is the beautiful, intelligent daughter of the local doctor, a very confident, overbearing man.  Against his wishes, she has gradually become deeply, disturbingly religious, and enters the convent as soon as she is of age. As in any other society, Mariette’s ethereal beauty and unshakable devotion incite jealousy among the good sisters. Some fall in love with her, but others are suspicious. When Mariette begins falling into trances (ecstasies) as she communicates with Jesus, the unity of the convent is split in two. When she manifests the stigmata – the wounds of the crucifixion – it is nearly destroyed. Is Mariette a saint, a deluded and disturbed young woman, or a fraud?

Ron Hansen is a writer with considerable descriptive and narrative skills. The book’s chapters are related in accordance with the “hours” of the day and the feasts and commemorations of the Catholic calendar. A meditative, contemplative quality infuses this novel, as do frankly sensual scenes that show how closely connected to nature were those who lived in this more simple time and place. The narrative is hypnotic, leading the reader to feel almost a member of the convent community.

Mariette in Ecstasy is a tour de force, lyrically written, mystical, and original. Read it and make your own decision about whether Mariette was saint or sham.

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