Reading Notes: Ron Hansen’s Mariette

~ Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) by Ron Hansen ~

There’s an old friction in Christianity between the longing for mystical experience and the keep-your-head-down plodding work of the humble, devotional life. Hansen’s book succeeds best when he keeps to this theme, exploring the jealousies and factionalism that erupt at an upstate New York convent when a teenage postulant suffers a series of increasingly intense mystical experiences.

Unfortunately, Mariette in Ecstasy also suffers from a bad case of what I like to call “Writer’s-Workshopitis.” I could smell Hansen’s MFA after just a few pages. In this particular case, symptoms include present-tense narration, an excess of lyricism and ambience and a corresponding dearth of story and character, and too much poetic neologizing. For example, a cruel wind “sharks” through the fields; and rather than gently touching or caressing an object, hands must be “tendering” them. The fact that this second usage occurs twice in a book of a mere 180 pages is, in my opinion, unforgivable.

I appreciate the theme of Mariette in Ecstasy, and I admire its final solution (and I do think Hansen offers one), but the book reads too much like an outline of the novel that it was supposed to be.

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