The National Catholic Review
Ron Hansen

On Aug. 15, the feast of Mary’s Assumption, a homeless Chaucer scholar on antipsychotic drugs has a vision that convinces him that 14-year-old Francesca Dunn is the Virgin, pregnant with the Savior. Certain he’s been elected to serve and protect her, Chester finds the girl at a Colorado café, where she hands out free food on weekends, and falls to his knees in adoration. Witnessing that, another homeless man feels his sudden heart pain subside when the girl’s hair braid brushes his chest. Soon more medical miracles are being attributed to her, she begins to exhibit all the signs of virginal pregnancy, and a cult of zealots forms around Francesca Dunn, a child of divorce who may be soliciting these attentions to make up for those she lacks from a father who is in Rome with his new girlfriend.

Watching the devotees of Francesca in fear and confusion is the girl’s mother, Anne, a paleobotanist whose only God is natural selection, and Francesca’s friend, Sid, a classmate in their school for emotionally disturbed children who finds she can sell nail parings and snapshots of the celebrated Virgin for a good deal of cash. Making matters worse is Anne’s sister, Rae, a crazed spiritual seeker who has just returned from an ashram with her son Jonah, whose fatal illness his cousin will be asked to heal. Conveniently a genius, the five-year-old Jonah explains Francesca’s condition to Sid by saying, “It’s called parthenogenesis. This zoologist in Scotland was talking about it. He said ewes get babies without having a dad. That’s what he said, ‘without benefit of the male.’”

The gun-toting Christian fundamentalists who have become so popular as plot devices inevitably show up here, and a con-man minister warns Chester, “Son, have you heard about the Antichrist? Many have seen the signs. He is the devil, and he is coming just as Christ is coming. I ask you, which one is in the belly of that girl?”

Enlisted by the local Catholic bishop to check into such matters is a handsome Canadian Jesuit for whom Anne lusts in a vague way and whose theological contribution to the narrative is nil. Francesca Dunn “was raised without religion,” and that is the chief failing of this first novel as well. At a Christmas Eve dinner Anne reports, “We ate, we drank, and no one mentioned that we were celebrating the eve of the birth of the last Messiah.” This is hardly a surprise, since none of the characters ever seems inspired to discuss Mary of Nazareth, Bethlehem, soteriology, signs and wonders or any of the biblical and end-time questions such otherworldly happenings would seem to provoke.

Janis Hallowell does write gracefully, and she’s particularly adept at portraying the secret, tormented life of teen girls. But without a core of faith to heighten its mystery, her novel too often inhabits the outlandish world of supermarket tabloids.

Ron Hansen’s novels include Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus, Hitler’s Niece and Isn’t It Romantic? He teaches literature and creative writing at Santa Clara University.