Review: Two new novels reveal the secrets of nuns

Two novels are now available, one featuring a well-respected writer in mid-career and the other, a beautiful, smoldering debut that explores the inner lives of religious women. Both books reveal the inner lives sisters, who are as Claire Luchette says in Agatha from Little Neon, “were the opposite of invisible, but still difficult for people to see.”

MatrixLauren Groff

Riverhead
257p $28

Lauren Groff, a finalist for the National Book Award three times, is the author of her novel. Matrix,In the 12th Century, she combined historical details inspired from Marie de France (whom some scholars believe might have been Marie Abbess de Shaftsbury, half-sister to Henry II) with her imaginative output to create an indelible fictional character.

Claire Luchette, whom the National Book Foundation just honored with its “5 Under 35” designation, sets her book in the contemporary church. An upstate New York parish is struggling financially and must send four sisters to Woonsocket to help run a halfwayhouse while it is being tainted by abuses by priests. Luchette’s protagonist, Sister Agatha, is quieter and more obedient than Groff’s Abbess Marie, but no less memorable. These two novels demonstrate their authors’ keen perceptions of human nature and their rare ability to portray a variety of expressions of faith.

Lauren Groff’s language Matrix is powerful, precise and frequently glorious.

“She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France,” Groff begins Matrix. Marie is sent in 1158 from Queen Eleanor, the court of Aquitaine. After marrying King Henry II, she rules as the queen and ruler of England. At court in Westminster, “Marie appalled everyone with her ravenousness, her rawness, her gauche, bigboned body.” Eleanor decides the “bastardess” Marie is too unlovely to marry off, so instead sends her to become the prioress of a royal abbey gripped by poverty and illness in the midst of England’s Dark Ages.

Marie feels wretched as she arrives at the “glum damp abbey,” stinging from her exile from court and from Eleanor, whom she loves. Marie has no vocation, and Groff writes that “her faith had been twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its own geometry until it was its own angular, majestic thing.” Groff shows how the sisterhood at this abbey is formed from a mix of unweddable royals stashed away for propriety, widows and young women called by God (or who were at least seeking to avoid the typical life of marriage and early death during childbearing years, a fate that awaited a third of all medieval women).

At first Marie fantasizes about escaping to become “a wildwoman or a lady brigand or a hermit in a hollowed trunk of a tree,” but she is a natural leader. At the abbey, Marie takes over the correspondence, sets about extracting funds from delinquent renters on the abbey’s lands and assigns people jobs according to their skills, even down to one mentally ill but artistically gifted sister who takes on the task of decorating the abbey and the manuscripts it produces, once Marie establishes a scriptorium.

Marie starts to see visions of the Virgin Mary. She gives her instructions on how to fortify this abbey. It evolves into a prosperous sort of feminine utopia—a place of learning, prayer, industry and health—once Marie has banished all men from the grounds. Marie never follows church law exactly; she finds no prohibition in the Bible, for example, against “bodily release” among women that “has nothing to do with copulation,” and eventually her aversion to men becomes so intense that she scandalizes many by saying Mass herself. But Groff makes it clear that Marie’s ability to gain power within the constrictions medieval society placed on women allows the other sisters’ goodness to flourish. “With their heads bent over their books like this, their words palely shining,” Groff writes, Marie “understands that the abbey is a beehive, all her good bees working together in humility and devotion.”

Groff’s language is powerful, precise and frequently glorious as she details Marie’s rise in stature. Marie analyses and responds to the shifting dynamics within the sisters, among the church hierarchy, and royal relations. In the end, her work empowers others as much she empowers herself.

In the case of Claire Luchette’s Agatha from Little Neon, the protagonist, Sister Agatha, evinces a great deal more humility, chastity and obedience than Marie but displays a similar power of conviction and an abhorrence of the violations committed by the church’s men.

Claire Luchette’s Agatha from Little Neon is written with clarity, restraint and gentle humor.

When Sister Agatha’s mother died at 11 years old, she found solace in the Catholic Church. Luchette joins her story at a turning point in 2005, when 81-year-old Mother Roberta—Agatha’s beloved, perpetually busy superior—begins to ail. Agatha and her sisters manage a daycare center within their parish. However, they are being undercut by a competing Montessori program as well as a shrinking number of parishioners. Mother Roberta plans to retire with little revenue and the Buffalo Diocese riven by scandal and legal costs. Agatha and the three other sisters are transferred to a halfway house in Woonsocket, R.I., painted “the color of Mountain Dew,” known as Little Neon.

Luchette writes with clarity and restraint, as well as gentle humor. Her pacing is confident and she clearly loves her characters. Sister Agatha does the narration, but she is slow to reveal herself. She isn’t a showy type with unbridled appetites like Groff’s Abbess Marie. “As a girl,” Agatha explains, “as soon as I knew what prayer was for, I prayed for likeness. ‘Dear God,’ I said, every night. ‘Make me unexceptional.’” Agatha mostly listens when others talk, and characteristically, she received no clarion vocational call. When she met two nuns at the convenience store, where she had worked the night shift as an adolescent, she felt compelled to become a sister. “There was no invitation. There was only that night in the gas station; it was late, and I was lonely, and I understood, watching the two nuns, that you could live your whole life alone if you weren’t careful. You might never find a decent place to hide from yourself.”

Agatha settles into their lives at Little Neon, where she is a sister living with recovering addicts. The parish priest soon declares that he needs one to be the geometry teacher at the high school. The sisters put Agatha forward because she’s the “smartest,” even though she is so quiet that one sister thinks, “Those kids will eat her alive.” Despite being terrified to put herself out into the world in front of a classroom, Agatha does as she is asked. Agatha’s perspective changes as she works at Little Neon and hangs out with residents.

When Agatha’s awareness of this injustice grows, spurred by the discovery of mistreatment of a beloved Little Neon resident by a bishop, it emerges from inside her like a lioness’s roar: “They had not imagined consequences, these priests, these men who could baptize anoint and transubstantiate, men who could stand at the pulpit and speak of temptation, then, warped by a sense of impunity, do what they wanted in the world, including rape in the middle of the day, then sit on the other side of the confession box and listen to people list their sins.” Sister Agatha is not powerful like Groff’s Abbess Marie, but she seizes what power she can and uses it to full effect.

Matrix and Agatha from Little Neon While they differ in their historical setting, their protagonists’ temperaments, and their prose styles, both focus on women able to see the world clearly, realize the power of it, and then decide to use it for good, regardless of how many people it upsets.