[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]
Imagine the most horrific treatment one human being could inflict upon another. Then skew the moral compass even farther from the norm by having the victims be a nun and a priest. This is the springboard situation on which Alfred J. Garrotto’s novel, The Saint of Florenville, a love story,” is based. And in spite of the horror, the book–as the title suggests—really is a love story.
The horror in this book comes through flashback, occasioned by the death in prison of the monster who committed the crimes—even killing Father Jensen, the priest. A young Brussells reporter, Celeste de Smet, has been assigned to write a story about this notorious twenty year old crime. To this end, she travels to Florenville, Belgium, to interview Mother Superior Marie Therese of the Servant Sisters of Mary and Joseph, now the only survivor of this terrifying event. And this is where the actual plot takes off.
Celeste is young, in her twenties. Heading away from home to get her story, she has little idea what to expect. The daunting concept of a Mother Superior, of nuns in general, of life in a convent, of the victim of a terrible crime—all of this leaves her apprehensive. But when she meets Tess—as Sister Marie Therese says to call her—she must stop and reevaluate. “Her high forehead and prominent cheekbones promised intelligence. Gray eyes, gentle and wise, invited trust. . . . A hint of dimple at the corners of her mouth created the gateway to a ready smile. I sensed I was in the presence of a woman who had come to terms with any demons from her past.” (p. 32)
Bruce Roberts is a poet and ongoing contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine. Roberts may be reached by at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tess has never spoken of this crime in public, but after twenty years, she finally agrees it is time. However, she does not believe in giving away her story without reciprocity. To answer questions about her feelings, Tess insists that Celeste reveal personal stories and feelings about herself. Thus Celeste, instead of just taking notes and formulating a story in her head about people outside of herself, is suddenly drawn into an intense psychological/emotional relationship in which she must explore her own feelings about life and love and forgiveness, in effect bringing her own insights out to help in her understanding of what Tess experienced.
Upon arriving at the convent, the first person Celeste sees is a gardener: “Not a nun, but a bearded groundskeeper who smiled at me from a section of garden where he was clipping roses from a rainbow palette of chest-high blooms.” (p. 31) The gardener then slips below the plot’s radar, while Tess and Celeste go back and forth, deepening their relationship by trading personal stories and insights.
Several chapters later, though, he reappears, and suddenly a whole new dimension emerges. Tess introduces him as Jean Fauchavalent, the alias adopted by Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean when he lay low in a convent. Through continued questioning and trading of stories, Tess reveals Jean’s story too. He is in fact Father Tom Jensen, her friend who was kidnapped with her, and suffered the same unspeakable abuse–until “the monster” dragged him out of the basement cell one day, never to be seen again.
How he came to the convent, despite amnesia, starvation, and intense mental and physical abuse is a story remarkable in itself. But his real value shows in Tess’s story of how the nuns accepted him, cared for him, and even sheltered him from the world until he could gradually regain his physical and mental equilibrium. He had changed so much that Tess didn’t even recognize him for weeks after his arrival. But as his identity dawned on her, she made repeated trips to visit with him and try to recoup his memory. The ultimate strength of their relationship, after enduring so much together, is the undeniable–and unconventional– love story here.
In a good novel, characters change. Tess and Tom have certainly been changed by their horrible shared experience. And despite their long road to recovery, it has been a good change that has strengthened them as human beings able to forgive, and to care for others. Celeste too is stronger. Having to face the weakness in her erratic relationship with her faith, and men, she lands on her feet at the end, facing a much brighter future.
Tom’s survival though is the ingenious twist in the plot. The monster has been convicted of his murder. Had the sisters called the police and revealed Tom as the missing victim, the monster could have served a shorter sentence on a lesser charge. Their decision to cover for Tom, to let him recover in the serenity of the convent, meant the monster got life, and died in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Such a delicious form of revenge for the Servant Sisters of Mary and Joseph.
Just who is the “SAINT” of Florenville? Tess? Tom? Celeste? Future readers may wrestle with this question, before realizing it matters not to the overall positive impact of such a thoughtful and powerful book. Well-done!