Ron Hansen can write beautiful sentences, but the central drama of Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) is unsatisfying. Perhaps the problem lies in his characterization: Mother Saint-Raphaël, for instance, does not have that fullness that would allow us experience her ambivalence towards the protagonist. The startling introduction of the Mistress of Novices (4-5) is perhaps the only moment in the narrative that reveals the Mother Superior as a whole person, body and soul. The image sets up a striking parallel with Mariette (see her introduction on 8-9; cf. 178), but subsequently the Mother Superior becomes too 'spiritual' a character, which is odd for someone whose theory of mortification is explicitly opposed to "mysticism" (see the third anonymous complaint recorded on 142). Mother Saint-Raphaël's body drops out, or appears only in a sort of muted, necessary way.
Othe other hand Hansen has created a really interesting character in the eighty year old priest, one of two males in the novel. Unlike Mother Saint-Raphaël, Fr. Marriott is a whole person throughout the story. His initial contouring is fine and memorable: he dozes off while reading, suffers through various pains without complaint, recites Latin prayers with distinctness, and (most importantly) keeps an open mind toward the new postulant. In this last regard he is an important foil to the Mistress of Novices, though he shares her suspicions: "Hear me, Mariette. You are not the first young nun to tell me such things" (41; see also 124ff). Further, Père Marriott is central to one of the novel's more engaging technical devices: brief, interpolated, anonymous dialogues from a future moment in the timeline, when the good priest is investigating Mariette's ecstasy at the request of the Prioress. His development is also credible, and even approaches tragedy: good-hearted from the beginning, he becomes a bundle of contradictions (simul good cop et bad cop), before finally siding, though powerlessly, with the girl.
But one fine character can't redeem a novel, and Hansen's ensemble is large: 30 or so nuns live at the Priory. The payoff of this structure is that he has a host of people with varied daily tasks, poses, psychologies, and struggles, to choose from. In describing these, Hansen has numerous opportunities to wax poetic. And he's good at it. Consider:
Everything but houses and trees are in the great white stomach of winter, and gray doom is in the skies. Externs stand at their windows in knitted black sweaters and watch as a cruel wind sharks what it can. (135)
"Sharks" is a pretty great verb. Like the anonymous exchanges with Père Marriott, this paragraph and others like it are set apart from the surrounding narrative, and function as both straightforward landscaping and suggestive or symbolic "atmosphere" in C.S. Lewis's sense.
But the ensemble approach presents a problem that Hansen's novel doesn't ultimately resolve. I had trouble keeping all the nuns straight, and regularly had to interrupt my reading to flip back to the dramatis personae at the beginning. Who again is Sister Marie-Madeleine? And Sister Genevieve? And Sister Ange? Some of the nuns' characters are instantly and permanently scored, such as Sister Hermance, the fat, correct, pious, lovable novice, and Sister Aimée, the increasingly jaded infirmarian. But most of these minor characters are insufficiently distinguished -- they melt together in the mind -- and the extra labor of verifying their identities doesn't help Hansen's story, and rends his evocative prose.
Perhaps this is intentional. Perhaps Hansen doesn't care whether we remember what this particular nun did when we met her previously. But sometimes it does matter, as in the case of the signatories of the letter maligning Mariette on 160-1. On the whole I'm inclined to think the novel is too short. It runs a mere 179 pages, and extra space might have given the impression of a concrete world that Flannery O'Connor considered so fundamental to the good work of fiction.
These flaws would be forgivable if we were ecstatic about Mariette Baptiste herself, who "bears in her body the marks of the Lord Jesus." By the way, don't believe those reviewers who claim the novel leaves open the question of the miraculous. The question is most definitely closed, answered affirmatively in a hundred different ways. Here's an extreme instance: in a scene without any characters, the narrator describes the liquefaction (after the manner of Saint Januarius of Mariette's blood -- and this happens in the dead of winter in upstate New York. Nevertheless for all of the diary entries, letters, and dialogue describing Mariette's rapture -- not to mention the straightforward narration of demonic assault -- I never did quite experience or believe in her divine pleasure. The real question is whether this is a failure of one piece of fiction, or incommensurate with fiction entirely. Assuming (perhaps without ground) that spiritual ecstasy is not inherently ineffable, is fiction unsuited for its communication?