A Feature Review of
Unveiling: A Novel
Paperback – Revised Edition:
Paraclete Press, 2018
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Ashley Hales
With fake news, looming headlines, and a culture that’s bent at shouting at one another across the aisles, Suzanne Wolfe’s novel, Unveiling, is a treat. Wolfe, who authored the Christianity Today award-winning novel, The Confessions of X, has thoroughly revised and edited her 2004 debut in for its 2018 re-release with Paraclete Press.
Unveiling is the story of Dr. Rachel Piers, a recent divorcee and art restorer, who leaves New York City and her past to restore a medieval triptych in Rome. She’s commissioned by a large American corporation to identify the piece as done my a medieval master. She’s met with Donati, her Italian counterpart, who specializes in pigments. Together they strip away centuries of detritus, both in the painting and their pasts.
Summarizing Unveiling could make the novel seem trite, as it would be so easy to digress into the wheel ruts of the “divorcee runs off to Europe” storyline. Her own mother insinuates as much via a phone call on the first several pages. But even though the novel involves a love story and a woman finding herself, Wolfe stays away from tired tropes.
The novel is a quiet one — its prose finely tuned, its characters full, its sense of place concrete and enigmatic.
Unveiling joins a long list of books about American artists in Rome. Most notably Wolfe’s novel has parallels to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, the story of three American artists in Rome who are befriended by the Italian Donatello (similar to Wolfe’s Donati) who may be partly mythical. Like Hawthorne’s novel, Wolfe’s novel engages themes of the Fall of Adam, magic in creation, innocence and experience, and the connection between morality, religion, and art. With their slim cast of characters, both novels work out how the Fall of humanity from grace effects both (specifically) the artist’s and (generally) humanity’s relation to God.
But it is the curses of the Fall on women particularly that form the crux of Wolfe’s novel. Rachel Piers is uncovering a version of the Lamentation (Mary swooning back into the arms of John whilst supporting the dead body of her Son). Like Mary, like Rome, Rachel is ruined.
Soon after her arrival in Rome, Rachel is sexually assaulted. This drives her back to remember her stepfather’s violation of her at age 14. She wonders why she didn’t fight him, and she recalls her rounded belly, and how a child became a problem to take care of. A problem her mother took care of, through abortion, not by seeing her suffering, the frailty of humanity, or the possibility of beauty and redemption on the other side.
It is Rachel who is unveiled even while her mother is further concealed.
This is a book about women, about the wounds of motherhood, about the challenges of being an artist, recovering oneself, and making choices to conceal or reveal — whether that’s in art or in the recesses of the human soul.
Where Wolfe shines clearest is in this connection between Rachel, her mother, and the Virgin — women all marked by suffering. In the triptych Rachel sees “A mother’s face, twisting with anguish as it looked down at the body of her child, knowing it for the body she had delivered into the filthy straw, the body she had bathed and suckled, the body she had caught inner arms as it tottered its first steps toward her, crowing in triumph. It was the face of a woman who knows she is holding her child for the last time.” The question posed to Rachel is: how she will bear up under the Fall? How can she be a woman, fully herself and alive, when she’s been abused, her marriage has failed, her mother forced an abortion on her, and she’s miscarried a baby? And perhaps more troubling than all of her sexual and bodily brokenness is the deep betrayal by her own mother who ultimately only saw herself in her daughter’s reflection.
Rachel’s mother — who flits in and out of the novel — is a successful interior designer who stuffs her clients’ homes with gilded furniture, while Rachel peels back all that is broken and decaying to find hope, beauty, and art. Will Rachel choose to bear up (or be borne up like Mary is in the arms of John) even though evil and suffering abound? Or will she move passively away like her mother does, attempting to bury or cover up all that is evil in the world?
The novel asks pointedly and kindly: what is a woman’s relationship to her mother, to the divine mother, and to unborn children she cannot hold in her arms?
For the novel circles less around the unveiling of this particular piece of art, it rather circles around the unveiling of a woman amidst suffering. Rachel discovers through her art restoration that “suffering was not something to be born alone, [Mary’s] gaze said, but could be shared, participated in, by another. It was this chain of correspondences this link between one human being and another, between one age and the next, that [the artist] wished to convey.”
Rachel, like all of us, longs to mother and be mothered — to be a part of a community that acknowledges evil and pain and then forms an embrace, rather than runs. It is then fitting that the final scene marries the domestic with the religious. After Easter mass, Rachel notices (perhaps a bit like Kathleen Norris in The Quotidian Mysteries) the priest cleaning up. Then “the altar became homely again, as functional, ordinary, as the table in Signora Donati’s kitchen. Yet an echo of grandeur remained, the bare white cloth, the lit candles, a sign of readiness, a promise to the unexpected and weary guest of a welcome as unquestioning and generous as the one Rachel had been given when she put her lips to the spoon Signora Donati held out and tasted.” This is the space — in the church and in the home — where Rachel longs to be welcomed.
What a novel like Unveiling can give to us now as a gift — one we need more than ever — is our deep human need for bearing with one another, and the transformative power of art and faith, and how suffering is never the end of the story. Maybe that’s what Wolfe does too, she subtly and gently re-enchants even those things that are broken, unnoticed and unidentified — whether those mysteries lie in medieval art, a historic city, or the human soul.
Ashley Hales is a writer, speaker, mother to 4, and pastor’s wife in the southern California suburbs. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs (IVP Books, October). You can find her online at aahales.com