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Catholic Novels: Necessary Heartbreak

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 01, 2010

The first of my four remaining recent “Catholic Novels” is Necessary Heartbreak by Michael J. Sullivan, a first novel by a sports journalist. It was published by Gallery Books, an imprint of the secular publisher Simon and Schuster. Subtitled “a novel of faith and forgiveness”, the didactic nature of the work is made eminently clear from the start. The story follows a widowed father, Michael Stewart, and his teenaged daughter; the premise is that Michael has been devastated by his wife’s death, has largely closed himself off to God and man, and is in serious need of being touched by Christ so that he can open himself more fully to his daughter and others who enter his life.

Sullivan writes easily, and his characters are both distinctive and well-drawn. Above all, they are portrayed realistically and sympathetically enough that we really do care what happens to them. I want to emphasize that this is no small achievement; we will see elsewhere in this series that not all authors manage it. Here the author’s own understanding of people and their emotional turbulence, especially in denial, stands him in good stead, as does his obviously sincere determination to write something more than a sermon.

But the same cannot be said for his plot. When it comes to the plot, either Sullivan has been far too influenced by fantasy or he has fallen prey to the belief that, as a "Catholic novelist", he must somehow bring his main character in direct touch with Christ as depicted in the gospels, so that the hero can respond to that experience, learn to see Christ and himself in a new way, and be healed—all without realistically living a single moment of his own life.

Almost inevitably, then, Michael and his daughter slip through a sort of time warp only to find themselves in first century Jerusalem, just in time for the passion and death of Our Lord. Now I admit that once they get there we do have the makings of an interesting story within a story. Michael finds support from a lovely Judaean widow who seems to know him somehow, and the two slowly fall in love. It is a gentle and altogether wholesome romance which thoroughly engages the reader. (As I said in the first installment, in the right hands, anything is possible.) And it does more for Michael, I think, than his direct experiences of the Christ. (Do you see the issue and the potential? Why not trade an unrealistic direct presence at Golgotha for the more realistic presence of a Christian woman's love? Might that not make a "Catholic novel" too?)

Unfortunately, the plot seriously betrays the potential of the characters. There are more loose ends here than in a ball of yarn cut in two by a buzz saw. And my guess is that all this arises from the not uncommon idea that a “Catholic novel” must serve up the whole Christian message along with a ten course dinner of conversion in an overtly Christian way. Predictably, just as soon as Michael (and to a lesser degree his daughter) learn enough lessons, they are whisked back through the portal again, ending up in very strange clothing in the modern world, though happily transformed in Christ. One begins to hope it has all been a dream, though that interpretation doesn't work.

Nonetheless, I’ll bet many Christians and near-Christians will enjoy the story. The characters were sufficiently compelling for me to be willing to accept (regretfully) the extraordinary limitations of the plot so that I could enjoy the relationships unfolding among the protagonists. In this connection, the book’s biggest single drawback is not the Deus ex machina of the time warp, but its inevitable demand that the love story—which is the most deftly handled and emotionally satisfying aspect of the book—should be cut off and left behind. [Note: After I posted the review, the author informed me in a very kind note that this is the first of a planned trilogy, “so not all the pieces to the puzzle are revealed in book one.”]

It is certainly worth noting that the book brings us face to face with Roman brutality and the suffering Christ. For some readers, this will add tremendous value. The hero's presence at Judas' suicide is a surprise twist. And from a literary point of view, the book is quick and light—arguably another plus for many contemporary readers. But my duty as a reviewer is clear: I can recommend Necessary Heartbreak only with reservations. Sullivan subordinates his plot to the preaching point he wants to make. The result, just as the best part of the story is reaching its climax, is an unnecessary heartbreak that Sullivan’s characters ultimately do not seem to feel.

Previous in series: Catholic Novels: The Big Question
Next in series: Catholic Novels: Theophilos

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