When a writer’s first published work is a collection of short stories, some of those tales often contain the seeds of that germinating or soon-to-bloom debut novel. The strongest stories in Jamie Quatro’s accomplished first collection “I Want to Show You More” revolved around women embarking on affairs as relief from their staid or disintegrating marriages, and assessing their relationships and religious beliefs.
Five years on and in her incendiary first novel, “Fire Sermon,” Quatro introduces another female protagonist and deals with the same burning issues of faith and faithlessness, only this time with greater scrutiny and intensity and with more miraculous results.
Quatro’s stories were set in Lookout Mountain, Ga., where she lives. Her novel plays out in several cities, in the confines of home and the freedom of further flung locations.
In April 2017, Maggie meets James at an academic conference in Chicago. They have much in common: They are both 45, they have been married to their spouses for 23 years, their children are the same age, and they are allergic to peanuts and “Moby-Dick.” Instead of going their separate ways in the evening, they spend the night together in her hotel.
For Maggie, this is no one-night stand with a mysterious stranger. Through flashbacks (and later flash-forwards) we learn that James is a poet whose work gave Maggie such a “renewed sense of holiness about the world” that she wrote to him. After a year of correspondence they met for the first time in Nashville in 2014. They kept in touch, meeting and writing, sharing and confiding, until finally Chicago ended a platonic relationship and years of built-up tension.
This illicit encounter is the crux of the novel. Quatro gives it weight by making it a pivotal moment in Maggie’s life, a revelatory experience she is unable to forget. It is a natural response to an urgent impulse but also an out-of-character exploit. For Maggie is committed to her husband, Thomas, and to God.
Quatro skillfully explores this inner conflict by having Maggie lay bare her desires and devotions, crises and quandaries. A multifaceted woman emerges who speaks to us from the heart.
Maggie’s rigorous soul-searching and candid declarations are conveyed through various means. Along with a conventional narrative that, in fits and starts, tracks Maggie from early marriage to late life, we get e-mail exchanges and journal entries, poems and visions, a dialogue between head and heart, and a series of question-and-answer sessions in which the interlocutor could be a therapist or Maggie’s conscience.
As with Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair,” “Fire Sermon” examines infidelity by deftly balancing the sexual and the spiritual. There is agony and ecstasy, and the tantalizing hope of redemption through confession. All is rendered with fierce intelligence and lyrical grace.
Passionate and intimate, few first novels are so adept at tracking “the guiltiest swervings of the weaving heart.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Jamie Quatro.
Publisher: Grove Press, 208 pages, $24.