Four nuns and a halfway house for the recovery of drug addicts

By Claire Luchette

What calls a 20-year-old woman in the modern world to religious life? The Catholic Church’s corporate line has a simple answer: God. For Agatha, the titular heroine of Claire Luchette’s first subtle and resounding novel, “Agatha of Little Neon”, the answer is more complicated: the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience provide an antidote to her existential loneliness under the spell. form of a current community of sister-in-law, as well as an outward structure on which to hang her timid and aimless life.

When the Convent in Lackawanna, NY, which Agatha has known since her novitiate goes bankrupt, she and her three sisters in the faith are transferred to a parish in Woonsocket, RI, where they will live and work at a Catholic halfway house called Little. Neon, so named for its bright green exterior paint, bought on sale. Intentionally naive, armed only with the power of prayer and good intentions, the four nuns do their best to guide the recovering drug addicts of Little Neon to the right path. The sisters lead the weekly urine tests and compulsory Bible study, and provide the healthy enjoyment of play nights and kindergarten arts and crafts.

Of course it doesn’t. Residents almost flee in the middle of the night as soon as a bed opens in the city’s secular halfway house. They often relapse or commit suicide when the balms of simplicity and obedience, which Agatha and her sisters apply with unwavering confidence, fail to assuage the pain of the modern world. Compared to the nuns, the inhabitants of Little Neon are drawn in strict specificity. They have complicated stories and a lively physique on the page, while there is only a slight difference between Agatha and the three women she shares a life with. Sisters work easily together and when circumstances demand they take on separate roles (one handles Bible study; one repairs cars; one is slightly better in cooking than others; Agatha teaches) without conflict or even consideration. If feelings of envy or apprehension arise, they quickly and serenely chase them away with prayer, dissolving forever in a spiritual anonymity bordering on obliteration.

For Agatha, invisibility is the point: it is the conformity of godly living that creates the security she dreams of. In her world, the disturbances of conformism are literally garish – the neon green of the halfway house, the treble of someone laughing a little too loudly, the blue hair of a teenage girl who turns out to be queer.

The call to adventure comes when the local priest, in tow of the deacon and principal of a Catholic girls’ high school, asks if any of the sisters would be teaching geometry to sophomores. Agatha accepts the job. This is one of the many feats of narrative restraint that Luchette expertly uses throughout the book: worldly turns, cut like a prayer, subtly plant the seeds of Agatha’s quiet journey to apostasy. Next, Agatha will confront, with a nascent sense of herself and independence, a new friend from the secular world, an impersonal type letter from the Pope in response to the impassioned handwritten letters from the sisters, the sight of two teenage girls kissing. and the cowardly failure of the church to atone for the sexual abuse of children by priests. Agatha begins to question the blind faith of her sisters, what the secular world might call “spiritual circumvention”: their ability to pray away from danger, whether the danger is real (predatory priests, suicidal depression) or illusory (love). queer).

It is Agatha’s loneliness, resisting the most sincere prayer and the most humble gratitude, which leads her to her inevitable decision of religious life. The power and pleasure of this novel lies in the slow blooming of desire from tiny seeds of doubt.

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