on May 11, 2011 :
Each Angel Burns is a masterpiece!
Kathleen Valentine is a gifted author in possession of a variety of talents. She knits gorgeous shawls by the seashore, shawls that are soft and sensual; she also loves to cook old fashioned comfort foods that nurture and heal. Valentine writes non-fiction books about knitting and cooking, and uses her talent for fiction to effortlessly cook up and then knit together remarkable stories about the passions of the flesh as well as the spirit. Each Angel Burns is Valentine’s second full length work of fiction and it is even more sophisticated and cleverly woven than her first, An Old Mermaid’s Tale, which was a story I thought would be impossible to beat. I was wrong. Each Angel Burns is a masterpiece.
Each Angel Burns begins with a wonderfully written introduction to a small group of middle-aged men struggling with the disappointing realities of their ordinary lives. These guys have been meeting at the local watering hole for thirty years since their graduation from high school and Valentine is adroit at writing dialogue that’s true to their blue-collar roots, masculinity, and New England mill town locality; so true, in fact, that it’s easy to imagine yourself sitting on a bar stool nearby, munching Beer Nuts and drinking a brew. Such is the sense of familiarity and comfort that Valentine quickly establishes; these guys are real and it would be a rare reader who wouldn’t know them.
Two of the men in this close knit group of friends quickly develop as central characters in the book: Gabe is a talented craftsman with an artist’s eye and heart, and Pete, the most handsome and gifted man the old mill town ever produced is a Jesuit priest teaching at nearby Boston College. Gabe is the settled-down guy who never wandered far from home; long married with three adult daughters who’ve flown the nest, Gabe struggles to understand how his marriage turned into a meat locker. Valentine’s ability to sketch out a marriage turned as cold as dry ice and just as caustic is astonishing. Gabe’s wife is a woman seething with slowly fermented husband-hate, a hate whose seeds were planted long ago when she married Gabe, knowing full well she didn’t love him. Gabe is excruciatingly unaware that the defect in his marriage is not anything he can correct.
Father Pete is married too but his spouse, Holy Mother Church, is a more demanding lover than any earthly wife. Pete has been a good priest – a faithful and loving spouse – but when the only woman he ever loved, Maggie, reappears in his life he, like Gabe, is suddenly faced with his own middle-aged marital crisis.
Maggie, named after The Magdalene, is married to a man of great wealth and even greater malevolence and after years of abuse Maggie has finally found a way to break free. Her husband, Sinclair, has given her the strange gift of a deconsecrated convent built on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Maggie is determined to return the Monastery of St. Gabriel the Archangel to its old glory and as she works to regenerate the mysterious convent it begins to regenerate her. Maggie’s hunt for the famous and long-lost statue of Gabriel the Archangel that was said to miraculously guard the convent door leads her to an expert on the subject at Boston College… and back into the life of Fr. Peter Black, the man she loved but walked out on many years before.
The Monastery of St. Gabriel the Archangel becomes ground zero in a Manichean battle for the hearts and souls – and lives – of all three of heaven’s namesakes: Gabe, named after St. Gabriel, the patron saint of priests; Peter, the rock upon whom Christ built His church; and the Magdalene, one of the most misunderstood and maligned women in Scripture, the woman of sin with the purest of hearts. Maggie’s malevolent husband is the Devil’s own handiwork; he is a creature of unimaginable evil able to destroy all three as surely as he has destroyed many others. Gabriel the Archangel, however, is determined to deny the Devil his victory.
Each Angel Burns washes over the reader, first slowly like gentle waves on a quiet day at the shore and then as fiercely as a killer squall. Valentine is a writer who is as talented with narrative as she is with prose. Her dialogue is earthy, clever and utterly believable while her narrative is breathtakingly beautiful, at times sumptuous. Valentine blends literary fiction with its opposite in a remarkable story that satisfies all of the senses. Gabe, Pete and Maggie are indisputably the story’s central characters but Valentine presents a compelling cast of actors who support her main cast brilliantly. Julie, Gabe’s brittle angry wife, sucks the air out of every scene she enters and Gabe’s father Mick is a crusty old guy smarting from the pain inflicted on him by his dead wife, a woman whom he robbed of her dreams by his all-too-human love. Gabe’s brother Mike and his wife Daisy are people who have refused to let personal tragedy destroy them and their strength and love for one another plays out like a beautiful but sad symphony. Zeke, Gabe’s dog, is an animal without shame; a brazen whore for affection, Zeke is willing to give as good as he gets and returns love with the generosity of a free spirit as only a dog can do.
Each Angel Burns is sexy and sophisticated and Valentine delivers a few shockaroos that are completely unpredictable. The ending is suspenseful, original, and satisfying and a testament to the many miracles that happen among us – those few that loom large and dramatic and the many that heal and sustain our broken spirits.
Kathleen Valentine has secured for herself a respected place in contemporary American literature and I eagerly await her third novel, Depraved Heart.
Maureen Gill, author of January Moon
(reviewed 3 days after purchase)