As in her 2012 novel, “The Forever Marriage,” Minneapolis writer Ann Bauer’s latest book, “Forgiveness 4 You,” takes on the concept of self-forgiveness and features a protagonist whose choices haven’t always been ideal. But unlike the unapologetic Carmen Garrett of “Marriage,” Gabriel McKenna in “Forgiveness” wants redemption. So do the flawed, true-to-life characters who come his way. And like most of us who want anything these days, they want absolution now.

Humorously, compassionately and cynically, forgiveness becomes a business in this compelling novel, which in many ways asks the reader, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

It’s a question that haunts Gabriel, a 42-year-old Catholic-priest-turned-bookstore-clerk. He left the church after an emotional breakdown at the altar one Easter. Yet even standing behind a cash register, he can’t escape his calling.

People want to tell him their stories, and not the happy ones. Gabe hears more about his customers’ regrets than about their favorite authors, which gives industrious ad executive Madeline Murray an idea: What if there were a service that provided forgiveness, no matter the religion, and without the need for penance? The result is Forgiveness 4 You, with Gabe as the company’s face.

But as the business grows along with Gabe and Madeline’s relationship, so do questions about their well-meaning, but clearly flawed, endeavor.

Told by Gabe and interspersed with e-mails, marketing memos and text messages, “Forgiveness 4 You” is quick-paced and engrossing. Gabe is honest, easygoing and empathetic as he begins questioning people’s urgent need for forgiveness.

Interestingly, and perhaps even scarily, the characters’ creation of a pay-for-forgiveness business doesn’t seem all that strange. True to life, almost anything today can be bought or sold. But as Bauer makes clear, our world is complicated; it’s filled with dichotomies, and people very often aren’t what they appear.

To accompany the book, Bauer has created a Forgiveness 4 You website (www.forgiveness4you.org) where people can choose between two buttons: “Be Forgiven” or “Confessions.” Bauer said she designed the site not so much to promote the book, but “to help people stop living in the past by hearing their histories, forgiving their moments of weakness, and helping them move on.”

It’s an interesting but unnecessary idea. Reading Bauer’s clever, kind novel will do the same thing — maybe even better.

 

Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.