Synopses & Reviews
Rebecca Martin is a single mother with an apartment to rent and a sense that she has used up her illusions. I had the romantic thing with my first husband, thank you very much, she tells a hapless suitor. I'm thirty-eight years old, and I've got a daughter learning to read and a job I don't quite like. I don't need the violin music. But when the new tenant in her in-law apartment turns out to be Michael Christopher, on the lam after twenty years in a monastery and smack dab in the middle of a dark night of the soul, Rebecca begins to suspect that she is not as thoroughly disillusioned as she had thought.
Her daughter, Mary Martha, is delighted with the new arrival, as is Rebecca's mother, Phoebe, a rollicking widow making a new life for herself among the spiritual eccentrics of the coastal town of Bolinas. Even Rebecca's best friend, Bonnie, once a confirmed cynic in matters of the heart, urges Rebecca on. But none of them, Rebecca feels, understands how complicated and dangerous love actually is.
As her unlikely friendship with the ex-monk grows toward something deeper, and Michael wrestles with his despair while adjusting to a second career flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, Rebecca struggles with her own temptation to hope. But it is not until she is brought up short by the realities of life and death that she begins to glimpse the real mystery of love, and the unfathomable depths of faith.
Beautifully written and playfully engaging, this novel. is about one man wrestling with his yearning for a life of contemplation and the need for a life of action in the world. But it's Rebecca's spirit, as well as her relationships with Mary Martha, Phoebe, her irresponsible surfer ex-husband Rory -- and, of course, the monk downstairs -- that makes this story shine.
"Sappy, sentimental, and painfully earnest: the sort of silliness that will appeal to anyone who has ever wept over Joseph Campbell or Enya." Kirkus Reviews
"One of the most engaging and humble characters in modern fiction. A touching novel from a wonderfully gifted writer." Anita Shreve, author of The Pilot's Wife
"I dont use the word 'enthralling' often, but no better adjective applies to Farringtons warm, intelligent, wry, absolutely wonderful novel." Elinor Lipman
When a spiritual crisis compels monk Michael Christopher to leave the monastery after 20 years, he moves into a San Francisco apartment where he is drawn to his landlady, Rebecca. Michael soon wrestles with his yearning for a life of contemplation and the need for a life of action-in-the-world in this love story with a twist: God as the other woman.
About the Author
Tim Farrington is the author of Lizzie's War, The Monk Downstairs,—a New York Times Notable Book—and The Monk Upstairs, as well as the critically acclaimed novels The California Book of the Dead and Blues for Hannah.
Reading Group Guide
1. Michael Christopher initially tells Rebecca that he left the monastery because he had a fight with his abbot. Why do you feel he really left the monastery? What was he looking for? What did he find?
2. When the story opens, Rebecca has reached a point in her relationship with Bob Schofield where he feels emboldened to propose marriage. In refusing him, she realizes that she has been tempted to settle, to compromise her longing for deep love and intimacy, for the sake of security and simple companionship. Her friend Bonnie suggests that she might be holding out for the fairy tale thing, while her mother, who has known a fulfilling marriage, tells her briskly that theres no need to settle for mediocrity. What do you think? What is the balance between realistic compromise in intimacy and the longing for a marriage of true minds?
3. In his first letter to Brother James, Michael Christopher says, There is a prayer that is simply seeing through yourself, seeing your own nothingness, the emptiness impervious to self-assertion. A prayer that is the end of the rope. A helplessness, fathomless and terrifying. Is this an aspect of spirituality you can relate to? What is the difference, if any, between a dark night of the soul and mere depression or despair?
4. What is Rebeccas view of God at the beginning of the novel? What is her view of love? How do these evolve through the course of the story?
5. Mother-daughter relationships are central to the novel. Compare and contrast Rebeccas relationship with Phoebe, her mother, and with her own daughter Mary Martha. What sides of her does each relationship bring out? What kinds of love does each bring into play? What kinds of frustration?
6. What are the crucial points at which Rebecca and Michael Christopher are able to move closer? At what points do they fail to move toward intimacy, and instead move away? Why?
7. Michael Christophers troubled relationship to his former abbot, Fr. Hackley, has obviously been central to his religious life, and his struggle to comes to terms with it continues to be so even after he leaves the monastery. What is your sense of what the real issues were between the two men? How does the evolution of Christophers understanding of his former abbot reflect his own spiritual development throughout the book?
8. Similar to Michael Christophers need to make some peace with Abbot Hackley and what he represents, is Rebeccas challenge in coming to terms with her ex-husband, Rory. What is your understanding of the history between the two? How has the relationship affected Rebeccas view of love? How do the changes in Rebeccas attitude toward ex-husband reflect her own development throughout the book?
9. Rebecca is ambivalent about her job throughout much of the novel. Like her longing for true intimacy, her craving for a fulfilling career is in delicate and conflicted balance with her sense of what is realistic. In what ways does her work at Utopian Images fulfill her and exercise her real gifts? In what ways does it stifle her? How realistic is it to hope for a career that is more than a tedious way to pay the rent?
10. St. Augustine defined a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. There are at least two examples in the novel of unorthodox sacraments: the baptism of Sherilouss baby at Stinson Beach, and Michaels Christophers administration of last rites to Phoebe in the hospital. What is your sense of the spiritual validity of these impromptu rituals? What is a true sacrament?
11. Michael Christopher says, We dont hear much of the danger of prayer, but it is the deepest sea and I believe there are many who are lost en route. What is your sense of the sea of prayer and its hazards? Is it really possible to be lost?
12. In their conversation in the kitchen in Chapter 5, Michael Christopher tells Rebecca the story of the failed love that propelled him into the monastery. How much of his commitment to the religious life do you think was a positive longing for God, and how much was simple flight from the challenges of intimacy and work in the real world? Is a true monastic vocation possible?
13. On the morning after their first night together, Rebecca and Michael Christopher run aground on his reluctance to let their relationship pass into a more public knowledge. What is your reading of the situation, and of Christophers conflictedness? Do you think Rebecca overreacts?
14. In one of his letters to brother James, Michael Christopher describes God as an unfathomable darkness, and the peace of Gods presence as a perfect silence and a kind of nowhere. How does a radical unknowing like this differ from atheism? In theological terms, Christophers spirituality could be characterized as a via negativa or apophatic approach to God, a focus on Gods ultimate unknowability, in contrast to the more familiar kataphatic path in which God is known and loved through an emphasis on divine attributes such as love, mercy, and justice. What is the place of a dark night spirituality such as Christophers? Is it compatible with life in the world? Wouldnt it be better if he just, like, lightened up a little?
15. How does her mothers crisis affect Rebecca? How does it affect Mike? How does it change their relationship?
16. Do you think Rory is really ready to change, after the judge lets him off the hook? Does his relationship with Chelsea have a chance to succeed?
17. One of the books central themes is stated in the contrast between the active Martha and the devotional Mary in the book epigraph from Luke 10. Discuss your own sense of the balance between the life of busy service and the contemplative life, and how the theme plays out in the novel.