Janis Hallowell's mystical and emotionally charged debut novel is both an unusual coming of age story and a modern-day parable about the seductive powers of belief. Chester, a homeless schizophrenic, envisions 14-year-old Francesca Dunn as the Virgin Mary incarnate, thus igniting a religious frenzy that engulfs many in its powerful wake. Through the use of four narrators who embody distinctly different views on belief, we see how faith can take various forms, all of which can be damaging in their extremes. The multiple narrative voices allow us to observe events from many perspectives as they swirl around the easily suggestible Francesca, who resides in the eye of the storm.
After a purported healing seems to substantiate Chester's vision, Francesca is besieged by legions of followers searching for salvation and desperate to believe in the miraculous over the mundane. As they make her the unwitting repository for all of their needs and desires, she becomes dangerously convinced of her own divine powers. The inattentions of her preoccupied, recently divorced parents and the self-centered opportunism of the people charged with protecting her succeed in fanning the flames to a fever pitch. When the tide begins to turn against Francesca, the passion of her followers turns murderous, and events unfold that force her to face her own very human limitations.
In Francesca and Chester respectively, Hallowell perfectly captures the fragile vulnerability of adolescence and the precarious divide between the delusional and the visionary. Her inventive hands create a world of clever ambiguity that casts a hypnotic spell on the reader, mesmerizing us with its delicate, delicious dance between the possible and the improbable.
Beautifully written and brimming with strong, appealingly eccentric characters, this magical and modern twist on the story of the Virgin's Annunciation raises intriguing questions about the nature of contemporary faith and religion.
Joni Rendon writes from Hoboken, New Jersey.