A Review of
A Story of Discovery
James Martin, S.J.
Hardback: HarperOne, 2015
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Reviewed by Ryan Johnson.
Noted for his depth of insight and his light-hearted wit, James Martin, SJ constantly delivers best-selling spiritual works such as A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and his more personal Jesus: A Pilgrimage which recounts his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Abbey is at once both a continuation of these earlier works and a departure. It marks Martin’s first excursion into fictional writing and while the genre may be new territory for him, the spiritual insights and his signature humor continue to pervade the entire book. Perhaps not an instant classic as his previously mentioned works, The Abbey is nonetheless an enjoyable read for anyone who is eager for the practical spiritual wisdom that Martin is known for.
Set outside Philadelphia, The Abbey revolves around the storylines of three characters and the interactions they have due to their connections with the Abbey of Saints Philip and James. The first of the characters to be introduced is the handyman of the Abbey, Mark. Mark immediately strikes the reader as an attempt to create a persona that is both raw and endearing. When he is first introduced he comes across rather morose due to his recent layoff from a position at an architectural firm and his failed attempt to make ends meet through carpentry. These circumstances are coupled with his longing to start a family. This general attitude is short lived and he oscillates between mildly wistful and winsome rather quickly. This serves to create an endearing quality about his character providing a cheerful foil to the story of his landlord, Anne. His occasional swearing and the insinuations about his romantic relationships give a certain amount of believability to the character, albeit a simplicity as well.
Anne’s storyline is centered on the premature death of her son, Jeremiah, who tragically died after being hit by a car three years prior to the story. It is Anne’s grief and journey toward healing that provide the backbone for the novel. Understandably, she is dejected throughout with intermittent moments of consolation. These moments are brought about by her interactions with Father Paul, the abbot, and Father Edward, an elderly monk who baptized Anne as a baby. In her first interactions with them, she tries to remain cold and detached demonstrating an underlying anger and mistrust toward God. Yet, as the book continues, this is slowly relinquished as Father Paul helps Anne process the emotions that she is feeling and examine her own heart in relation to God. One of the more poignant moments of the book is when Father Paul asks Anne to write a letter to God. After completing the letter, she rereads it and finds that, “it was more sad than angry.” Martin strikes a chord here in that anger often masks emotions that lie beneath the surface and it is only by exposing those emotions that healing can take place.
Father Paul is the third of the storylines that is followed in the book. As expected from the Abbot, Father Paul demonstrates wisdom and patience that is lacking in the other characters. At the same time he is far from being a stock character as the reader is granted refreshingly honest access into the heart and mind of an abbot. His honesty concerning his longings for intimacy, his own insecurities, and his struggles granting grace to the other monks seem to be written in such a way that one wonders if this isn’t Martin’s own confessional. Indeed, Father Paul’s ability to help Anne through her grief along with the patience and grace he shows to Mark betray Martin’s own experiences in these areas. As such, Father Paul is immediately likeable and just as Anne is strangely set at ease in his presence, so too is the reader.
The novel moves at a leisurely pace which allows the characters, particularly Anne, to wrestle with their emotions rather than finding contrived solutions to their problems. This serves to draw the reader in and adds complexity to the story. Martin’s ability to express the feelings of grief felt by Anne is clearly born out of personal encounters with people who have gone through such trauma. His understandings of grief and the consequent journey to healing is perhaps the most important aspect of the work as a whole.
While The Abbey is an enjoyable read, the novel’s plot can be characterized more as a wandering than as a purposeful journey. Furthermore, any who read The Abbey hoping for a satisfying resolution to the loose plot will most likely find themselves disappointed. Martin refrains from offering a cliché ending and chooses instead an ending where tension remains. In this, the novel is wonderfully understated. Throughout the novel, Martin is attempting to capture the reality of life and the breaking in of the gospel. This is often messy, awkward, and rarely are endings nice and neat. Martin understands this fact and seems to purposely end the story with several questions left unanswered. To be sure, this may be seen as a weakness of the novel as it doesn’t end the way the reader had hoped, nevertheless, it seems this is intentional and points to the fact that even when healing has started, the process of healing may never truly end.
Despite Martin’s attempts to portray real life, there are moments of awkward dialogue which seem more contrived in an effort to convey some point. This is most notably evident when the prayers of the monks are explained along with the daily schedule of the abbot. These are helpful in explaining the typical routine of the monks for those who are unfamiliar with them, but it adds very little substance to the overall plot of the book.
As Martin’s first attempt at fictional writing, The Abbey is a pleasant start. Despite the loose plot and the occasional distracting dialogue, Martin offers a look into grief that is profound and insightful. His experience in ministering to people in such situations bleeds through the pages. This fact alone makes the book a worthwhile read. Personally, I am thrilled that Martin has chosen to explore fictional literature and I excitedly anticipate his next fictional work.