Review: What does faith have to do with ‘getting it’? It’s a question for the whole family.
Jen and Katie Nilsson look for love and happiness—in all the wrong places. The sisters inhabit an anything-goes world where people are more interested in material gains than in spiritual ones. They realize that something is missing from their lives but don’t know what. Then happiness finds them, seemingly out of the blue. Or so they think.
That auspicious moment drives Brendan Hodge’s fast-moving debut novel, If You Can Get It. Hodge’s title alludes to the popular George and Ira Gershwin tune “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” The reference works well for Hodge, since his story closely resembles the message in the lyrics. The song’s refrain sounds almost as if it is set to this book’s story line. I could almost hear these lines in my head as I read If You Can Get It:
The man who only lives for making money
Lives a life that isn’t necessarily sunny
Fall in love—you won’t regret it
That’s the best work of all—if you can get it.
But Hodge is not just after a lighthearted treatment of love and marriage. He is also probing the relationship between parents and their adult children and the way religion plays out in their lives—if they “can get it.” Jen and Katie, the focus of the story, are best friends who become romantic rivals. They barely knew each other growing up as siblings: Jen was 10 years older and traveled with the big kids, while Katie, the baby, toddled after their mom.
Their parents, Pat and Tom, had been only “Christmas and Easter” Catholics for years and raised their daughters in the same way. But after listening to the homilies of an assistant pastor, the parents become more ardent in the practice of their faith. In their zeal, they encourage Katie to return to the church and practice a more intense type of Catholicism. Katie angrily rejects their arguments.
In If You Can Get It, Brendan Hodge is not just after a lighthearted treatment of love and marriage.
Katie studied religious theory in college but has no personal connection to religious practice or notions regarding God and Jesus Christ. To her, religion is an academic study like science and does not have a particular link to her own Roman Catholicism. She finds it annoying when her parents try to share their enthusiasm for Catholic spirituality, which they do often.
When the book opens, Katie has left her parents’ home and is sitting in her car outside of Jen’s condominium (unbeknownst to Jen), hoping that her sister will take her in until she finds a job and a way to support herself. Just out of college, Katie is lonely and looking for a husband.
A hard-working and successful career woman, Jen takes Katie under her wing—but with misgivings. The more practical one of the two, she tries to help Katie find meaning in a career. In her mid-30s, Jen has a high-paying, prestigious job. She “lives for making money,” and urges Katie to do the same.
Jen has had a few serious relationships—but none have worked out. She has a longstanding friendship with Dan, a Jewish lawyer, whose mother pushes him to find a nice Jewish girl, while Jen’s mother attempts to persuade her to find a nice Catholic boy.
Hodge probes the relationship between parents and their adult children and the way religion plays out in their lives—if they “can get it.”
Katie settles in and finds a job at Starbucks. Jen, who has been working in product development, loses her job after a company merger. The loss turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forces Katie to become more responsible and more considerate of her sister. Jen begins to see that Katie is not so much of a bother as she is a comfort. In one of the more poignant moments in the story, she realizes that she had never actually known Katie but now she has “at last created a deep attachment” to her sister.
As the story progresses, Jen accepts another job closer to their parents in Illinois, and she and Katie move back to the Chicago area. The religious subplot (which has been simmering on the back burner) emerges more fully when their parents visit and attend Mass at the nearby Catholic church. At that point, the character of Paul Burke enters the story. Paul brings significant change to everyone and seems to be everything they are not.
A former seminarian, Paul is a handyman, a farmer, a lover of classical music and a devout Roman Catholic. He reads books by Wendell Berry and prefers the hymn “O Magnum Mysterium” to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” After Paul and Katie begin to date, Katie starts to “get it.” She goes to confession, receives the Eucharist, studies the tenets of Catholicism and sees her family in a new light.
It becomes her turn to encourage Jen to find the meaning of true happiness. Katie tells Jen that the physical world is shot through with meaning and is “actually supernatural.” For Christians like Paul, she adds, “how they live is...a reflection of how they believe,” not the other way around. Katie alludes to the teachings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, especially his book The Divine Milieu, but these are difficult theological concepts for Jen (and perhaps the reader). Jen, puzzling over Katie’s words, now finds herself the one who cannot seem to get her life together.
What happens next in this many-layered story has much to do with the complications of being a Catholic in today’s world, and the blessings that come as well.