I have long had a fascination with fiction books that touch on the divine. Fiction provides a unique way to explore spiritual issues while the concept of a human being becoming divine can shock us out of our preconceived notions. Given this background my interest was peaked by this description of Janis Hallowell’s soon to be released novel The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn: “the story of an ordinary girl who is believed to be a modern-day Holy Virgin.” I was lucky enough to receive a advance copy from First Look Books and read it immediately upon arrival. The story rewarded my interest fully and turned out to be a beautiful and interesting read.
I must admit, however, that I was nervous as I began to read. I was afraid it might turn into a heavy handed feminist novel. After all the story largely revolves around a couple of single mothers and the dysfunctional families that surround them. Throw in the issue of homelessness, mental illness, and abortion you have the ingredients for a real political slant.
Luckily, the author doesn’t take that turn but instead uses these characters to present an intriguing and in many ways touching story. The character of the title, Francesca Dunn, is a fourteen year old girl living in with her mother after the divorce of her parents. Her mother is a hardboiled paleobiologist confident that she can take care of herself and her daughter. Chester is the odd yet tender homeless man who comes into their lives and changes it forever. Sid is Francesca’ best friend; a teenager with an alcoholic mom and behavioral problems. Each chapter in the novel is told from the perspective of one of these characters. As the story progresses the author takes you deeper in to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. You see the story unfold from their perspective but you also begin to understand how they came to be who they are; the paths they took to get here.
The basic story is simple and yet surreal. Chester believes Francesca to be some sort of divine presence; a Virgin Mary for modern times. Francesca herself is scared and confused at first, but soon begins to be taken with the concept. Instead of going away after a time, the story is soon all over town and on the news. At some point the story is bigger than anyone could have imagined, big enough to be threatening. As the plot thickens and the tension builds, Hallowell throws in a number of twists and turns to tighten the pace increase the suspense. While the story is not really a mystery or a thriller, it has elements from those genres; you want to know what is going to happen and what it all means.
The writing style adds to the story as well. The alternating perspectives allows Hallowell to alternate voice and tone. Chester has a sort of mystical but wise perspective; a person who sees things that others don’t. There is a tension in his character, however, that adds a level of depth. Is he truly unselfish in his actions towards Francesca and her family? Or is he pursuing this miracle for himself; is it a creation of his own problems? Sid brings a cynical and troubled voice to the story. She desperately wants the love and security of a healthy family but she will also do what ever it takes to help her dysfunctional mother; even if that means hurting her friend. Francesca floats in a dream for most of the story. She occasionally has to face the hard reality of her parent’s separation and mundane issues like practicing her cello. But increasingly she becomes disconnected from that reality; she escapes into the character of the Virgin to cut herself off from the pain of life. Francesca’s mom, Anne, wants to believe she is tough enough and smart enough to fix this “problem” but it soon becomes clear that she will need help. In this way she is wrestling with her own limits; the fear any parent deals with: what if I can’t protect my child?
This is what makes reading The Annunciation enjoyable: the characters are unique and well drawn, the story is unpredictable and at times suspenseful, and the writing has just the right tone for the story. You feel like you have a glimpse inside the mind of the characters but also a better understanding of their world. The author has a way of starting each chapter with a sentence that captures the tone of that character and sets the mood for the story that follows. Let me give you a few examples. Here is the sentence that introduces Anne:
I spooned cereal into my mouth, staring at my calendar, rearranging weeks of lectures and, research, and museum deadlines, while Francesca paced the kitchen speed-dialing her father’s phone number in Italy.
The first sentences to another Anne chapter:
Natural selection was the God I believed in. I saw as a slightly psychotic Rube Goldberg. He was out in the garage with a cigarette dangling from His lip, drinking beer and tinkering. His was a rigged-up junkyard full of life, held together with spit and bailing wire.
Here Hallowell captures Sid’s home life:
When she was drunk, my mom didn’t pay me much attention other than giving me a lot of big wet kisses and calling me “girlfriend” and telling me too much about her sex life.
This start to a Chester chapter captures his unique perspective:
The world was waiting for snow just as it was waiting for salvation. Trees stood naked and ready. Gardens were frozen black.
Here is a description of Francesca that works on many levels:
The hot water holds Francesca, covers her. It is heavy and slowing. Her arms float upward, knees slay outward. Her breath deepens.
Amazingly, this is Hallowell’s first novel. One wouldn’t have guessed it from the way she skillfully uses language to set the tone and unveil the character’s motivations and emotions along with the story. The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn is a thoughtful and tender look at the way people cope with the world around them. I heartily recommend it.