I was a Catholic schoolgirl during a strange moment in the 1960s when Catholicism infiltrated American popular culture. For a brief time, nuns, in particular, were everywhere. The Flying Nun starring a buoyant Sally Field was on TV, "Singing Nun" Jeanine Deckers appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and her life was made into a movie; there was The Trouble with Angels and the "Mother Superior" of all nun movies, The Sound of Music.
Nuns, of course, have greatly diminished in number since the '60s and, in recent decades, when they do make an occasional appearance on screen they're often grim, even baroque characters like Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius in Doubt or Jessica Lange's Sister Jude in American Horror Story. The implication is that there must be something "off" about a woman who would choose such a life of self-abnegation.
Claire Luchette's debut novel, Agatha of Little Neon, offers a counter-narrative about a young 21st-century nun who's neither a holy fool nor a musical miracle worker nor a monster. I picked up Agatha of Little Neon for its unusual subject and I got pulled in by Agatha's voice. Sharp and, by turns, melancholy and wry, Agatha narrates her own belated coming-of-age tale about, as she says, learning "how to distinguish an idea of yourself from the real thing."
Agatha tells her story in retrospect, beginning in 2005 in her convent outside of Buffalo, N.Y. It's a place with walls painted "the color of mayonnaise," ruled by a beloved elderly Mother Superior who is "frail as filament." Agatha has spent seven years there, ever since she took her vows at the age of 22. She and three fellow sisters — all the same age — run a day care center; but, when the novel opens, the diocese is going broke because, as Agatha tactfully says, "the men in charge had been reckless."
Later on, when Agatha is "all out of deference," she's more lacerating about the "recklessness" — sexual as well as monetary — of those priests who are "in charge." Abruptly booted out of their convent, the four sisters are transferred to a half-way house in the depressed Rhode Island town of Woonsocket. There, without any training, they're expected to minister to recovering addicts and ex-convicts.
Here's Agatha's first impression of her new posting:
Woonsocket: a tuckered-out town in northern Rhode Island, split down the middle by a river of waste. The sidewalks were littered with condoms and crushed empties. From Woonsocket you could vomit into Massachusetts; from Massachusetts, kids came to buy liquor and fentanyl after nine.
The half-way house is "the color of Mountain Dew" — a yellow-green discount paint that makes the house visible "from three streets away." Hence the name: "Little Neon." Agatha observes that usually "[w]hen people saw our habits, they ceased to see our faces" and most of the half-way house residents behave that way, barely interacting with the sisters.
But one recovering addict named Tim Gary is different. Tim, who's lost half his jawbone to cancer and got hooked on Dilaudid, recognizes a fellow lost soul in Agatha. And Agatha is further pulled away from her community when she's ordered to teach geometry at a nearby girls' Catholic high school — an ordeal that should qualify her for sainthood.
What's especially striking about Luchette's novel is that it affirms the age-old writing workshop wisdom of "show don't tell." Despite the fact that our narrator, Agatha, lives a contemplative life, she doesn't devote a lot of space to ruminations. Instead, every short chapter here is structured as a precise vignette dramatizing different incidents in her and her fellow sisters' lives from the mundane to the harrowing: For instance, there's the poverty of regular mealtimes at Little Neon where cut-rate concoctions like chopped walnut tacos make appearances; and a scene where Agatha describes how her mother hemorrhaged to death after giving birth to a baby brother and how, for a grieving Agatha, church was the only thing in her life that "pulled [her] forward."
Until it doesn't.
You could learn to live without a part of yourself [Agatha tells us] ...
I did. For years, I lived like this. And then I started to yearn for what I had lost.
You don't have to be Catholic to connect with Luchette's nuanced and vivid story of a lonely young woman yearning for community and also yearning for everything she's had to give up to be part of that community. The nuns don't fly or sing or torment the helpless in Agatha of Little Neon, but they do make an indelible impression.