Jamie Quatro (who is a woman) is fast becoming one of America’s most impressive and accomplished younger writers, nearly in a league with such already greats as Jennifer Egan, Rachel Kushner, Nicole Krauss. Quatro’s short stories, “I Want to Show You More”, were some of the most impressive when published about two years ago, and her new novel, “Fire Sermon”, is absolutely first rate.
“Fire Sermon” has basically three main characters, Maggie, her husband Thomas, and her lover James. The fourth character, though, is The Catholic Church/religion, and Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with it.
Having found herself having her first sexual experience in college with Thomas, one of those awkward scenes that probably wasn’t entirely intended by either party, Maggie promises herself–and her God–that she will marry Thomas as a kind of promise and of penance for this perceived “sin”. And Maggie and Thomas do have a loving and productive marriage, children, careers that they both favor; all seems well, relative to the normal ups and downs of long term marriages. Then she starts a correspondence with James, a poet whose work she admires, and begins this evolving relationship by sending him some of her unpublished poetry, and their originally written (email) conversations grow into an admirable friendship, until they meet in person at an academic conference in Chicago. The erotic tension between Maggie and James is magnificently described by Quatro; in a cab on their way to what turns out to be his hotel room–they were sharing a cab to go to each other’s, separately–one might say that the first sexual encounter between these two seems almost as awkward as Maggie’s first with Thomas, but her body’s electrified by James, sensations she’s never experienced before occur, and Quatro also makes it clear that these two are falling in love, and do, while both are married and continue to carry on their “normal” daily lives.
But Maggie is virtually incapable of making love with Thomas—she can only have sex with one man, part of her religious beliefs; he’s confused and tries to limit his sexual contact with his wife, who proceeds to have twice the guilt as before, as her longing for James remains palpable–exquisite prose from Quatro–and her guilt also extends into a kind of monologue between Maggie and God; the best parts of this novel are probably these meditations—rationalizations? compartmentalizations? soul searchings?–on Maggie’s part as she struggles to place the role of physical desire into the context of her beliefs (The Fire Sermon itself, a sermon in the novel, is the most astonishingly written part of Quatro’s novel). Maggie sees physical desire both as sin and as redemption from sin, as either The Devil’s work or God’s, and that’s her major conflict throughout this novel.
That interrelationship between Catholicism and physical/erotic desire is the main structuring device of Quatro’s novel. Maggie’s conflict/struggle is depicted with both grace and with intellectual rigor; age itself will help resolve her situation as the marriage holds and James will eventually phase out of her life, though not from her desire/her fantasies/her memories. Thomas’s own feelings are astute and sensitive; Maggie’s ultimate lie about her relationship with James to her husband is her ultimate act of grace. Whether she ever makes peace with her God is left to the reader.
“Fire Sermon” is written gorgeously; its language is sophisticated , graceful, often awesome. Quatro raises issues that, until recently, wouldn’t have made it into fiction without the tragic endings of characters such as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. The fight between the sacred and the profane, and what both may mean in contemporary postmodern life, are magnificently portrayed in “Fire Sermon”. And Jamie Quatro is one superb writer whose future seems most assured in fiction.