Critics claim that stories about adultery are going out of style. Contemporary adultery is so commonplace and banal that no one’s interested. Does any 21st-century woman stand to lose what poor, dumb Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina did back in the day? With Jamie Quatro’s stunning The Fire Sermon, the answer may not be as simple as we suppose.
Margaret Ellmann is a writer and amateur theologian. Brought up as an evangelical Christian, her faith is real and important to her, and thus a bit vexing. It keeps her tethered to a man who, though somewhat repulsive as a lover, is a great father, provider and citizen. Maggie would adore her two lovely kids whether she was devout or not. They are teenagers when she starts to correspond with a poet named James Abbott. Their correspondence—handwritten letters and email—is heady, with shared intelligence and enthusiasm.
Maggie and James meet at a conference in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Later, they meet again at a conference in Chicago. This time, James’ wife isn’t around. Neither is Maggie’s husband. She will spend the rest of her life wondering just how what happened could have happened. As her kids grow up and leave home, as her hair turns gray, as her husband starts to slip gently into dementia, Maggie will wonder what her affair meant and how it fits into her relationship with God. Could it be that her out-of-control passion for James was just a simulacrum of the passion she should have for God? If it was, was it a sin? Would God have understood if she’d run away with James? After all, Buddha’s Fire Sermon teaches that everything is burning, and to understand this is a path to enlightenment.
These questions aren’t the usual ones you see in a contemporary novel, and they make The Fire Sermon gripping.