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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Be Near Me, But Not Too Near

Be Near Me
Andrew O’Hagan

Harcourt, 2006

Father David is English, educated at Oxford, and an outsider in his small parish in Scotland. Maybe he’s an outsider because he enjoys good food and wine, or maybe he’s an outsider because he never really got to know his parishioners the way he should as their spiritual leader. In any event, his only friend is his housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, who enjoys listening to classical music and learning about fine wine from Father David. They also work together in the garden and talk about intellectual matters, and this has always been enough for Father David – until lately. Lately, David has been unsatisfied with his quiet life in this small parish. Or perhaps it’s just loneliness that causes him to befriend Mark and Lisa, rebellious local teenagers who live in a world he barely understands. Their company stirs memories of earlier happiness—his days at a Catholic school in Yorkshire, the student revolt in 1960s Oxford, and a love affair he had once. For some reason, he spends more and more time with Mark and Lisa doing things that are very unwise and self-destructive: drinking alcohol, smoking, taking drugs, visiting bars and taking other excursions. He even gives them money. At first the friendship seems innocent to the townspeople, but then things cross a line and Father David has to deal with the consequences of his foolish behavior.

This is a quiet and contemplative book that focuses on the character of a priest who is unhappy with his life and his vocation. I believe the author intended to portray him as a sympathetic man who makes some bad decisions, but I found him to be quite stupid and self-serving. Surely he knew that he was jeopardizing his career and violating the trust of his parishioners with his actions, so why did he continue to behave inappropriately? The narration is first person, but the main character offers very little insight into his thought processes. In fact, he is very distant and remote and shares little of his emotions. It’s hard to care about him or his story, perhaps becuase he comes across as a first-rate snob. Critics loved this book; they loved the lyrical prose and poetic language the author used to describe a lonely man facing a personal and professional crisis. While I enjoyed these aspects of the novel, I found David’s story to be depressing and frustrating and the pacing too slow, especially the first half, for my reading mood. The ending was rather good, however.


Other titles by this author:
Personality, 2004

Other books you may enjoy:

Original Bliss by A.L. Kennedy (1999)
Helen Brindle thinks she has lost God--but it is simply love that she's missing. She is trapped in an abusive marriage, tormented by existential and personal doubt, and she suffers from insomnia, emotional paralysis, and pathological inhibition. Until she meets Edward E. Gluck -- public personality, renowned genius and group mental healer. Their excruciatingly awkward courtship may be what each needs to break out of their isolation.

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (1937)
Recounts the life of a young French country priest who grows to understand his provincial parish while learning spiritual humility himself.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children. As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family.

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