A novel about convent life at the turn of the century? Hardly the makings of a page-turner, yet Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy is a gripping, even life-changing book. For the Sisters of the Crucifixion, each day is a ceaseless round of work, study, and prayer--one hardly separate from the other. Their daily life is itself an act of devotion, caught here in a series of illuminated tableaux: hundreds of yellow butterflies alighting on eight gray habits, moving through a field; a sister praying as she "turns over a great slab of dough that rolls as slowly as a white pig"; nuns warming their hands on the flanks of horses, swinging scythes through timothy grass, crushing grapes with their feet.
Into this idyll comes Mariette--young, pretty, devout, but, as her father says, perhaps "too high-strung" for the convent. Prone to "trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and, as he put it, 'inner wrenchings,'" Mariette scalds her hands with hot water as penance, threads barbed wire underneath her breasts while she sleeps, and is convinced Jesus speaks to her. Her very glamour disturbs the gentle rhythm of the nuns' lives. But when she begins bleeding from unexplained wounds in her hands, feet, and sides, the convent is thrown into an uproar. Is Mariette a saint? Or just a lying, hysterical girl? Where do we draw the line between madness and faith, mysticism and eroticism, the life of the spirit and that of the world?
It's to Hansen's credit that he never provides easy answers. Mariette's stigmata may or may not be genuine; the novel's achingly gorgeous prose is the true miracle here. Mariette in Ecstasy is a brief, precious book, not a single word in excess, not a single word left out. --Mary Park