Mariette in Ecstasy
by Ron Hansen
A review by C. P. Farley
While reading Mariette in Ecstasy, I was reminded of the scene in Robert Graves's classic historical novel, I, Claudius, where cunning Livia Augusta speaks frankly — for once — with her fascinated nephew about why she spent the previous 300-odd pages poisoning, betraying, and manipulating the majority of the novel’s characters, seemingly without scruple or remorse. Claudius listens intently, for he is finally getting answers to a number of the story's mysteries: how his father really died, and so forth. The readers sits up as well, for it is as this point he or she realizes that Graves's story is not only an enormously entertaining historical novel, but also a great work of art. In Livia’s blunt self-assessment, Graves jolts the reader into an unexpected understanding of the intricate conundrums of human motivation.
In Ron Hansen's, Mariette in Ecstasy, an ethereal young woman disrupts the austere life of a turn of the century convent when she appears to receive the stigmata. The nuns are soon polarized into opposing camps, either declaring Mariette a saint or denouncing her a conniving fake. Like Graves, in shaping his story, Hansen demonstrates clear mastery of the skills of his craft — his portrayal of convent life is subtle and evocative, his prose a wonder of lyrical restraint, his use of dramatic tension makes this story of a group of nuns enormously compelling, etc.
What reminded me of I, Claudius, though, was the pivotal scene in which the mother superior, who we learn is more concerned about maintaining the stability of the convent than she is in determining the truth, speaks openly to Mariette of her feelings toward her. Mariette (and the reader along with her) is brought suddenly to deeper understanding of the complexities of human nature, in this case our unwillingness to face the unknown when it threatens to undermine the status quo. It is a remarkable moment. Hansen's unsentimental cynicism is deeply troubling. But his clarity of purpose and skill in execution are exhilarating. And it is these qualities that have lifted Hansen above the many merely talented writers of his generation and into the top tier of fiction writers at work today.