THE FEAST OF SAINT BERTIE
David C. Cook
In her sophomore novel, THE FEAST OF SAINT BERTIE, Kathleen Popa engagingly explores themes of loss, identity and the meaning of dedicating a life to God. The story begins with Roberta “Bertie” Denys returning from her husband’s funeral to see her California home go up in flames and her worldly possessions destroyed. Arson is suspected as --- coincidentally? --- her grown son Garrett disappears. It’s the last straw for Denys, who had nursed her husband through a lingering illness and is at the end of her tether.
Although everyone assumes that Denys will rebuild, the moneyed widow seizes on her losses as a chance to start over. Her husband’s letters, timed to arrive once a week after his death, further impel her to follow the spiritual longing she has felt since adolescence and give Popa a device to show scenes from Bertie’s past. Bertie remembers the visions she once had and wants to recapture them. A life of religious discipline sounds appealing. But where does a wealthy woman begin?
Bertie moves into a small 10x12 shed (sans water, toilet facilities and electricity) in the Santa Cruz Mountains where she and her husband once planned to build a timbered mansion. Popa offers some good contrasts here: the middle-aged Baptist woman with her belongings packed into Nordstrom bags, wearing brand-new designer shoes and trying to follow the simple Rule of St. Benedict to frame her days. Bertie divests herself of material goods, even as her new neighbors insist on offering food, assistance and new possessions for her shed. The mantra of another visionary, Julian of Norwich, becomes her own: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
But St. Benedict or Julian of Norwich didn’t have to grapple with cell phones disturbing the peace, centipedes in a can of tuna, or programming a watch to chime the hours for prayer. Bertie finds that a life of prayer and escaping from her troubles --- including controlling friends who mean well --- isn’t going to be as easy as driving her Lexus to the mountains. Throughout her story, Popa weaves in references to the early days of romance between Bertie and her husband Larry, the start-up business he built in Silicon Valley and she and her friend Suzanne built in catering, and problems she encounters with raising Garrett.
Visitors who misunderstand Bertie’s quest, a divorced man who seems overly interested in offering his help, and a young pregnant woman who practices witchcraft and runs the small general store close to Bertie lends interest to Popa’s plotline. As hints are dropped that Garrett may be responsible for the fire that destroyed Bertie’s home --- and other blazes --- Bertie must decide if her quest for solitude trumps her need to find her son.
Popa pens some strong descriptions, such as music as a “sonic laxative,” and her depictions of the natural world are often lovely, as is her integration of sensory delights. Although Bertie seems curiously devoid of emotion in the opening pages of the book after her husband’s death, son’s disappearance and loss of all her possessions, Popa begins fleshing out her grief in ways that feel more believable as the story progresses. The ending is a nice blend of the mystical, a bit of a stretch-of-belief, and happily-ever-after with some beautiful imagery thrown in. Those who read Popa’s debut novel, TO DANCE IN THE DESERT, should enjoy this interesting exploration of spiritual yearning, love and loss at midlife.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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