An extended review of a 2023 novel by Susan Fish
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Book by Susan Fish. Paraclete Press, 2023. 221 pages, $27 (e-book $10)
In this new novel by Ontario writer and editor Susan Fish, some lines by Dante recur throughout, describing the protagonist’s emotional confusion. “Midway on life’s journey / I found myself alone in a dark wood / where the right way was lost.”
The novel opens with middle-aged Elizabeth Fane on a flight to Florence, Italy from her home in Waterloo, Ont. After an unnamed personal crisis, she is escaping her home life to spend 50 days working in the olive gardens of a convent. This is viewed as an adventure by her husband and grown sons, and a minor scandal by her Baptist mother. But Elizabeth keeps her real motives for this self-exile to herself.
Renaissance is inspired in part by the author’s own time in Italy, and the descriptions of Florence take the reader on a tour of the famous city, home to Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo Cathedral, and a stunning artistic and cultural heritage. Like Florence itself, the novel is rich with imagery and wisdom as Elizabeth traces her interior journey.
The hard physical work of tending and pruning olive trees becomes a form of therapy as Elizabeth learns from Niccolo, the head gardener, about the necessity of pruning “large, egregious wounds” in an old tree to create fruit.
The rhythms of convent life “like cat stretch to downward dog, like inhale and exhale, like high tide to low tide” are as soothing to Elizabeth’s spirit as the olive oil they produce is to her feet at the end of the day. Another volunteer, Honey, who has only a few weeks left to her stay, becomes a friend and guide to Elizabeth as she orients herself to her new environment.
Several other possible friendships – with an English-speaking nun and a tour guide at the Uffizi art gallery – fall short. It turns out friendships between the nuns and visitors are frowned on at the convent. And the tour guide’s friendship eventually proves problematic, triggering Elizabeth’s pain at another betrayal.
The painting of the Virgin Mary in her room is also a companion of sorts, to whom Elizabeth makes tongue-in-cheek comments and playfully imagines changes of expression as responses.
The theme of motherhood is woven throughout the novel. Elizabeth is struggling with an empty nest as her youngest son has left for university. A born nurturer, she is grieving the loss of what is foundational to her identity and sense of meaning.
At the same time, hints emerge about a deeper wound that has led to this abrupt departure from her normal life. In the last third of the novel, readers learn about what happened, and why Elizabeth is wrestling between anger at her family and guilt at her own failures.
Surrounded by images of the Virgin Mary, she begins to relate to the pain the mother of Jesus shared with all mothers – the inability to shield one’s child from suffering. She learns to recognize in Mary not the idealized perfect mother, but the very human mother unable to control her child’s path or to protect Him.
She realizes Mary’s job was to love and accept, and wishes she had tried less to be the perfect mother – “tangling my identity with my boys, feeling guilty and responsible for them and their actions” – and instead loved her children with open hands, like Mary, saying, “Let it be to me,” in humility and acceptance.
It’s a lesson every experienced parent can identify with, especially Christian mothers. Often heartbreak and crises are what help us to separate our identities from the labels of family relationships, careers and various markers of success – to find our true selves as beloved children of God in Christ. By learning to let go of those personal idols, we receive a deeper grace.
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