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Faith meets friendship in Carlene Bauer’s debut novel

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Chuck Twardy

How to put this? If you are of, shall we say, temperate spirituality, the world offers few outlets for contemplating your beliefs beyond weekly worship. It seems there is only rabid religiosity or snarky dismissal, encounters with either of which leave you feeling inadequate, if not scorned.

The Details

Four and a half stars
FRANCES AND BERNARD
By Carlene Bauer, $23.

That’s partly what makes Frances and Bernard a pleasure. The title protagonists of Carlene Bauer’s first novel are frankly but not solely—or in any way ideally—religious. They chide and encourage each other and examine the underpinnings of their beliefs. Frances Reardon, raised an Irish Catholic, shies from the showier facets of her faith while Bernard Eliot, an aristocratic Bostonian raised in tepid Congregationalism, seeks in her faith the fervor he missed in his childhood.

They do this in letters, written frequently and with intensity, wit and warmth that make sharing by social media seem pathetically shallow. They begin corresponding after meeting at a writers workshop, and as each seeks success in the midcentury literary world, Frances writing novels and short stories and Bernard composing poems and editing a journal. Their models are Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, but Bauer freshly imagines them, especially Frances, whose motherless Irish upbringing in Philadelphia breeds a tough bitterness. Initially, she spurns romance, wanting only to write. In an early letter to a friend, Bernard denies romantic interest in Frances, but he is avid about her, and about God, in ways that trouble her. And with good reason—he’s not merely keen but manic-depressive, as was Lowell.

But they are, in their peculiar ways, in love with each other. They write, they meet, they write about their encounter to each other and to friends. Then everything changes. Among other developments, Bernard loses his faith, but not entirely. In the mid-1960s, after years of not writing or seeing Frances, he meets her at an awards ceremony and writes to his best friend about it: “Even as I say I don’t believe, I see that my higher law, when it cannot be love, is God, whose law demands self-sacrifice.” You don’t need to believe to see more self-pity than sacrifice here.

Bauer, whose 2009 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, reflected on her evangelical upbringing, deftly propels the epistolary narrative—not a simple task. Best of all, she writes about writing and faith with talent approaching that of her two models.

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