Four Nuns and a Halfway House for Recovering Addicts - The New York Times
Book Review | Four Nuns and a Halfway House for Recovering Addicts
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- Aug. 3, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
AGATHA OF LITTLE NEON By Claire Luchette
What calls a 20-year-old woman in the modern world to religious life? The company line of the Catholic Church has a simple answer: God. For Agatha, the titular heroine of Claire Luchette’s subtle, resonant debut novel, “Agatha of Little Neon,” the answer is more complicated: The vows of chastity, poverty and obedience provide an antidote to her existential loneliness in the form of an ever-present community of fellow nuns, as well as an exterior structure on which to hang her timid, aimless life.
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When the convent in Lackawanna, N.Y., that Agatha has known since she was a novitiate goes broke, she and her three sisters in faith are transferred to a parish in Woonsocket, R.I., where they will live and work in a Catholic halfway house called Little Neon, so named for its bright green exterior paint, bought on sale. Intentionally naïve, armed only with the power of prayer and good intentions, the four women religious do their best to shepherd the recovering drug addicts of Little Neon toward the right path. The sisters preside over weekly urine tests and mandatory Bible study, and offer the wholesome fun of game nights and kindergarten arts and crafts.
Of course it doesn’t work. Residents flee practically in the dead of night as soon as a bed opens up in the secular halfway house in town. They relapse often or commit suicide when the balms of simplicity and obedience, which Agatha and her sisters apply with unwavering trust, fail to ease the pain of the modern world. Compared with the women religious, the residents of Little Neon are drawn in stark specificity. They have complicated histories and vivid physicality on the page, while there is only slight differentiation among Agatha and the three women with whom she shares a life. The sisters work easily together and when circumstance demands they assume distinct roles (one manages the Bible study; one fixes cars; one is slightly better at cooking than the others; Agatha teaches) without conflict or even consideration. If feelings of envy or apprehension crop up they snip them away quickly and serenely with prayer, forever dissolving themselves in a spiritual anonymity akin to erasure.
For Agatha, invisibility is the point: It is the conformity of the pious life that creates the security she craves. In her world disruptions to conformity are literally garish — the neon green of the halfway house, the shrillness of someone laughing a little too loud, the blue hair of a teenage girl who turns out to be queer.
The call to adventure comes when the local priest, in tow with the deacon and the principal of an all-girls Catholic high school, asks whether one of the sisters would teach the sophomores geometry. Agatha accepts the job. It is one of many feats of narrative restraint that Luchette uses expertly throughout the book: Mundane turning points, muted as prayer, subtly plant the seeds of Agatha’s quiet journey to apostasy. Next Agatha will confront, with a burgeoning sense of self and independence, a new friend from the secular world, an impersonal form letter from the pope in response to the sisters’ impassioned handwritten letters, the sight of two teenage girls kissing and the cowardly failure of the church to atone for the sexual abuse of children by priests. Agatha begins to question her sisters’ blind faith, what the secular world might call “spiritual bypassing”: their ability to pray danger away, whether that danger is real (predatory priests, suicidal depression) or illusory (queer love).
It is Agatha’s loneliness, resistant to the sincerest prayer and the humblest gratitude, that leads to her inevitable decision about religious life. The power and pleasure of this novel lie in the slow blooming of desire from tiny seeds of doubt.