Monday, July 26, 2010


As soon as I read Jana Riess's beliefnet interview with Donna Freitas, I put a hold on both young-adult novels at the public library. The Possibilities of Sainthood looked like a sure bet. Riess notes that it "got starred reviews pretty much every place that fiction reviews can be starred: PW, SLJ, Booklist, and even snotty old Kirkus."

This Gorgeous Game, I thought, might not be as good. The topic is much darker - a teen-aged girl is stalked by a priest - and though reviewers were complimentary, they withheld their stars.

Now that I've read both books, I think the reviewers got it backwards.

Sainthood is a nice little book if read very quickly, as reviewers tend to do, but there's not much to it. It starts well, with Antonia's letter to the Vatican proposing a patron saint of figs, followed by her lusting after St. Sebastian's "beautiful, muscular body, arrows poking into him from every direction." It also ends well, with her hilarious adventure at the Winter Formal and - finally! - her first kiss. But saints and kisses were not quite enough to hold my interest in all 272 pages.

If you loved - or wrote - the book, don't be offended: I confess I felt the same way about Stephenie Meyer's first megablockbuster, Twilight. I am obviously not the best judge of teen tastes. But you can trust me when I tell you that This Gorgeous Game, Freitas's new (May 2010) YA novel, is gripping, significant, and very well written.

The plot is simple. Seventeen-year-old Olivia wins a high-school writing contest - and attention from a middle-aged priest who is also a famous writer. At first she is star-struck. Then things start to get weird ... and weirder.

Father Mark is highly respected by Olivia's family, her teachers, and the reading public in general. She assumes his interest in her is fatherly. He does not touch her inappropriately. There is no sex. And yet he soon crosses a line, and Olivia responds first with with confusion, then guilt, isolation, anorexia, and, eventually, panic.

Because we, the readers, know that something is going to be wrong with Father Mark, and because we have read countless newspaper accounts of abusive priests (and, to be fair, teachers, doctors, stepfathers, and any other category of authority figure who has regular, unsupervised contact with adolescents), we want to reach in and pull Olivia back before she gets hurt. And yet Father Mark has not actually done anything. Would anyone listen if she complained? Would they say she is too eager to accuse? Does she even dare to speak up?

As Olivia wrestles with these questions, she also works on her writing and falls in love with a college boy, Jamie. The young couple's pure, sweet, mutual love provides a welcome contrast to Father Mark's stalking and keeps the story from becoming too dark to read and enjoy. In fact, if I have any criticism of this book, it's that the ending may be more hopeful than realistic. But perhaps that is necessary. As T.S. Eliot wrote in "Four Quartets," "human kind / cannot bear very much reality."

The book's title, by the way, is from Thomas Merton's journal Learning to Love, in which he writes about an affair with a young woman many years his junior. Freitas uses Merton's words as an epigraph:
I simply have no business being [in] love and playing around with a girl, however innocently ... After all I am supposed to be a monk with a vow of chastity and though I have kept my vow - I wonder if I can keep it indefinitely and still play this gorgeous game!
Merton's shadow falls over much of the story. As Freitas said in an interview, "The Thomas Merton thread running through This Gorgeous Game is really critical and paints him as a villain of sorts, almost as a kind of prototype of Father Mark.... I really wonder how Merton lovers will react to this, if they will find my treatment of Merton rather unforgiving. And maybe it is, to a point. But I still think it’s a valid assessment."

Who should read This Gorgeous Game? I thought first of my granddaughters, who are 14 and 15. They aren't Catholic, but abuse of power isn't confined to men in Roman collars. Any teen-aged girl could benefit from this book. So could any parent of teenagers, or anyone who works with young people.

But I don't want to make the book sound like a self-help book, because that would be completely misleading. This Gorgeous Game is not a cautionary tale but a sensitive novel, elegantly written and psychologically profound, that transcends the young adult category and appeals equally to adult readers of literary fiction. I'm glad Freitas told Riess she's at work on a third novel, The Survival Kit. I think she has hit her stride.

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