The Confessions of X: A Novel
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2016
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Reviewed by Kathleen O’Malley
I generally avoid romances, but this is one I’m glad I read. The Confessions of X is a soulful saga of a woman’s life with those she loved. I admit, though, that after I saw the cover and summary of The Confessions of X, I wondered whether this would be a story with blatant sexual immorality. The fact that the story was about St. Augustine of Hippo’s common-law wife—or concubine, as was the term then—only strengthened this impression. In the modern culture, “concubine” is an uncomfortable word, and I shied from it initially. I eventually learned that in the fifth-century Roman world “concubinage” was a monogamous relationship between a man and woman—often of differing social statuses—who could not be married. It was an accepted arrangement, though perhaps not ideal, for situations when societal reasons forbade marriage.
Author Suzanne Wolfe approached the unnamed woman, X, from the perspective that Augustine’s words about her in his Confessions showed a loving relationship. Augustine wrote that when his mother arranged an advantageous marriage for him, “the woman with whom I had been living was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage and this blow crushed my heart to bleeding because I loved her dearly.” The Confessions of X is the story of X’s many years with Augustine leading up to this separation and after it.
Suzanne Wolfe’s prose is poetic and richly detailed, especially in the beginning chapter. The story of Augustine and X’s relationship is framed by chapters in which X is an old woman giving a loose sketch of the joys and losses she went through, in a grand summing of her life story. She tells what is coming. The main story of the book has the same lyrical quality and is very pleasant to read. I got partway through, then realized with surprise that Wolfe had succeeded at glossing over the fact that she had not named X. The only names given for X are the Little Bird, Naiad, and Mama.
X tells the story of her mostly happy childhood, then she remembers her thoughts of her youth and how she came to know Augustine through a shared friend. After Augustine takes her as his common-law wife, she remains with him during his slow climb from a student, to a teacher, and onward where his restless, brilliant mind keeps pushing them. They live for several years with Augustine’s Christian mother, Monica. As Augustine’s career moves forward, the subsequent societal pressure on Augustine and X’s relationship increases, leading to the story’s main climax. Afterward, X finds new hope, though she endures another tragedy. She watches Augustine rise from a distance. The story comes to a full circle, with X as an old woman, and closes with a final moment between Augustine and X.
Many romance stories end right before or right after a wedding, but The Confessions of X took the welcome angle of following X’s life after she entered her relationship with Augustine. I wouldn’t even call The Confessions of X a romance, because it is the life story of X’s love not merely for Augustine, but also for her father, for her son, and for other dear ones she meets.
These other characters, both historical and fictional, bring X’s story to life. Augustine’s mother Monica is an intriguing, powerful factor in the story. Augustine himself is depicted as a brilliant man, though he is searching for something to fulfill him. His restlessness pervades the story, despite his happy relationship with X. He changes from a restless, pleasure-seeking young Manichean, to a dissatisfied teacher of unruly students, to a man who doesn’t know what he’s looking for. Augustine’s desire for beauty shows him journeying toward satisfaction in God. Elements of his philosophy and later writings are woven into the story in a way that I’m sure would delight those familiar with Augustine’s works. His philosophy changes as the story progresses, and it’s amazing to watch, as is his heartfelt love for X. Indeed, the story has a refreshing theme of gentle and loving men—a welcome change from the corrupt upper class of Romans in that era.
X herself is a strong, thoughtful woman who loves wholeheartedly. Though she never embraces the Christian faith, I was reminded of Romans 2:14-15, which says, “Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.” (NLT) She shows a sacrificial love for Augustine that propels him toward God.
Augustine and X’s relationship is tender, yet they enter into it based on their desires rather than an honest look at what would be best for both of them or what their guardians would have advised them to do. The consequences for this disregard do not come immediately, but there are scattered promises that their relationship limits Augustine’s career. Thus, the story left me both admiring their relationship and hoping against their separation, even when I knew something wasn’t right. Augustine later tells X that he took her because he believed he could have anything he wanted, but that it ruined her future—tied it up in his own and then cast it aside. I agree with him.
The Confessions of X had a plotline and promise of doom that stayed in my head. My thoughts strayed to it as I went about my day. The beginning chapter hinted at the outcome of Augustine and X’s relationship, but I still hoped against it. I was afraid of the bad things that were promised to happen—and this is a sign that the story was excellent.
But I wished some details were less vivid—such as the moments of the physical union between X and Augustine, as well as other details of X’s young womanhood and of childbirth. Overall, Wolfe writes in a beautiful way, with startling yet apt descriptions that remind me of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
A few things I wanted to know more about were the last forty years of X’s life, which were summed in only a few pages. I wanted to see more of X’s thoughts when Augustine became a Christian.
When I finished The Confessions of X, I sat quietly for a while, appreciating what I had just read. It’s that kind of story—thoughtful and weighty. I am glad I pushed past the sensual content that would normally have kept me from reading this story. Wolfe found a historical niche, and her book does an outstanding job bringing to life the mysterious woman whom St. Augustine loved.
Kathleen O’Malley lives in southern Indiana and is in the middle of writing a fantasy story which she loves dearly. She looks forward to a future where she will be out of school and in the workforce as an editor/freelancer.