by Carol Zapata-Whelan
Editor’s Note: a version of this review has also appeared in Catholic Moms and US Catholic Magazine.
When Los Angeles reporter Dorrie McKenna, working in “tabloid hell,” chases a two-headed goat story that leads her to her long lost twin in Big Sur, we are pulled into a fast paced, arresting debut novel by Maura Weiler: Contrition (Simon & Schuster).
Contrition is a spin on the classic tale of opposites separated at birth: we meet the twenty-something daughters of a famous abstract artist, now deceased, who gave away one of his newborn twins–marked by a birth injury–shortly after his poet wife’s death in the delivery room. Dorie, raised by loving adoptive parents, is a smoking, drinking, Twinkie-sneaking falsifier of news for The Comet. Candace–Sister Catherine–reared by her tormented father, is a cloistered nun whose vows of silence yield ethereal art she both creates and destroys for God.
Living in a shabby apartment in Venice, CA, with “wallpapered over” feelings for an ex-beau in the movie industry, Dorie is poised for change. She travels to the sobering beauty of Big Sur, where a cloistered convent of barefoot nuns protects her twin.
Dorie’s efforts to process family secrets, her craving for connection–and identity–via Catherine, prompt her to enter the convent under false pretenses in order to write her sister’s story. The result is a dramatic reversal of fortune for both sisters.
Along with humorous caricatures–an amoral tabloid editor, a glitzy no-nonsense art agent, a Hollywood star–Weiler gives us a fascinating and reverent view of religious life. She draws a tender portrait of eminently human women whose life of self-abnegation and prayer is not above a feisty game of ping pong. And as Dorie the ex-Catholic moves away from an old fear of nuns, she finds herself estimating ages by eyeglass fashions, musing over faces renewed in prayer and unmarked by time.
Through Dorie’s efforts–both noble and ignoble–to profile her twin, to reach back for a new identity, Weiler’s novel leaves us with philosophical questions about family, vocations, faith, guilt, art–and what it is that we do, exactly, in the name of God.
Weiler gives us a page turning story distinguished by elegant writing, humor, and grace. The novel’s unexpected stunner of a conclusion makes clear the significance of her one word title. In Contrition, narrator Dorie’s writing, like Sister Catherine’s art, might be seen in TS Eliot’s words as a “raid on the inarticulate,” here, a desperate effort to explain our inexplicable guilt–for the sin of being human.
Carol Zapata-Whelan, PhD, teaches Spanish literature and Humanities at California State, Fresno and is the author of Finding Magic Mountain: Life with Five Glorious Kids and a Rogue Gene Called FOP. She is currently writing a YA novel about Diego de Veláquez’s iconic painting, Las Meninas.”