ALL SOULS follows a priest, his cleaning lady and her young daughter through the changes in their relationships as they each transform through the course of roughly seven years. And no they didn’t all go into a bar in search of some cheap and easy punch line. This book is no joke.
Though the title seems, at first, too broad, when you are finished reading this brilliant novel it hits you that the momentous scenes acted out within these pages have at some point in our lives, if only theoretically, touched us all.
The story begins with newly widowed Vivian Marker contemplating the green highway sign announcing the town at the end of the next exit.
Her toes hovered between accelerator and brake. Who said this town was any better than the last dozen they’d flown past?
The too-good-to-be-true named town, Mt. Healthy, becomes almost another character, evoking the corner store and one pump service station nostalgia where the church steeple is still the highest point in the city, people greet each other on the street by name, and the skies are not cloudy all day.
One moment Mrs. Vivian Marker is pulling off the highway onto the main street of the aforementioned town and then her battery dies at the intersection of Main and Chet’s Service Station. A sign from God, perhaps. Mt. Healthy the de facto Promised Land?
From the start, the narrative flows with urgency and the questions raised by this headlong flight are not immediately answered, but teased out through the first chapter, keeping the reader greedily churning to get to the bottom and go back to the top of the page again.
Vitucci’s style treats temporal transitions as a puzzle one puts together only after entering a black tunnel, then coming out the other side. Time and guidepost are sometimes not immediately apparent, and the new settings take a few paragraphs for the reader to orient themselves in an altogether different and unexpected place. The effect is like getting a bit too far over one’s skis, at once exhilarating and disconcerting as you bomb down the slope with reckless abandon.
Much is made of Father Benedict’s rolling gait upon his introduction and the payoff is the story of his wayward youth and a suggestion of ulterior motives for the sacred vows taken. Vivian’s duty to the church and Father Benedict is also undertaken for mostly unselfish selfish reasons, as her plans for priestly indulgences for her growing daughter form around hopes for each of their higher educations. Lindy, on the cusp of becoming a woman, whose unfocused energy is as miscast and flighty as her inexperience is long, becomes the irritant between them that could and will tip the scales for good or ill.
They all three have their coping mechanisms. Vivian distracts herself with her constant housekeeping and cleaning. Father Benedict speaks in generalities and saccharine religiously-inspired ditties. Lindy is naïve enough to think her wishes can all still come true, not quite innocent of the fact her lack of self awareness is sending her mother and especially the young-ish Father some dangerously crossed signals.
The three characters make up a semblance of a family that, unfortunately, is all surface and not substance. All three character’s thoughts often wish it were different and concoct comforting webs of fantasy that serve to prolong the collective agony that culminates in a fiery reckoning.
Vitucci has struck a nearly perfect balance between her characters’ outer selves and the unfulfilled wishes of their inner monologues, with an economy of purpose that is smooth and understated and barely noticeable as you drift along with the scenic panorama of her flowing prose.
It is a testament to the author’s ability to breathe humanity into her character’s that only now, writing this review, do I realize the shocking nature of the variations of the theme of forbidden love woven into the novel: homosexuality, incest, pedophilia and also murder are all soberly addressed, smoldering beneath the wet blanket of a seemingly mundane Midwest town.
In a flashback toward the end of ALL SOULS that echoes the Divine justice visited on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Vivian’s father is consumed by fire and, leaving the premises with no remorse for the self immolation that is the reckoning for the old man’s sin, the long dead aspect of Vivian’s husband, Harmon, cautions her to not look back.
The flashback, while compelling, seems, if not one scene too many, then a stumbling block that dilutes the impact of the novel’s overall wallop. Lindy’s outrage over what she perceives as her mother’s murderous role in the old man’s death is out of proportion in respect to what Lindy already knows of the horror Vivian endured at the hands of that same wicked man. As if pedophilia and incest are not fuel enough to ignite the pyrotechnics that set the novel’s climax on fire, this misplaced indignation doesn’t quite ring true.
But for this one grasping for too much when a bit less was enough, ALL SOULS is still a powerfully evocative and satisfying novel. Heavy on nostalgia for a lost era of Americana that will never come again, it examines the inchoate meanderings of the still and universal river that winds through the human soul, a subterranean motive force that needs must find its own level, lest it be damned, and is running through us all.