In his latest novel, Vatican Waltz, author Roland Merullo toys with ideas about the institution of the Catholic Church, but much less playfully than he speculated on spirituality in Breakfast with Buddha, where Otto Ringling – a staid, Midwestern-born book editor – ends up on a road trip with a New Age-style monk, Volvo Rinpoche (pronounced Rin-po-shay).
Vatican Waltz is the story of the spiritual journey of Cynthia Piantedosi, a devout, motherless, young woman in a close-knit Italian neighborhood of Revere, who grew up in the company of her untalkative, Italian-speaking father and her grandmother, now dead. Spending part of every day praying in various Catholic churches in Boston, Cynthia was known throughout her life to fall into trances that she calls “spells” – sometimes during prayer, sometimes out of the blue – during which she forgets where she is and loses track of time in a kind of spiritual transcendence. These spells bleed into regular life, setting her apart from her peers.
In training to become a nurse after graduating from high school, Cynthia notices she seems to have a healing touch, which she uses unobtrusively to relieve the pain of hospital patients, hiding it from the others on staff, believing it to be related somehow to her powerful and intimate feeling of spiritual connectedness to God.
Eventually, in her early twenties, Cynthia begins to believe that God may be calling her to become a priest. Although worried about the state of the Catholic Church in America and the loss of faith that many started to feel in its leaders, Cynthia counts herself a faithful Catholic, so it is only after lengthy consultations with her beloved parish priest and spiritual advisor, Father Alberto, that she accepts that this is what God is telling her and also that she needs to take it up with men higher up in the hierarchy than Father Alberto, who believes Cynthia will end up going to Rome with her problem.
“The spells and visions were something I’d been living with for so long that they felt as much a part of me as my hair and hands, and it simply wasn’t in my nature to lift my head above the tide of everyday-ness. I was very much like my father in that way: he did his work and came home. He didn’t make any trouble, as if he believed that there were always snipers in the neighborhood and to lift your face above the wall everyone else crouched behind was to invite a bullet. But it was more than that. Most of my young feistiness – most, not all – had, over the years of visions and prayer, been rubbed smooth like a stone’s sharp edges in surf. I was borne along in a near-constant peacefulness…The last thing I wanted was fuss or confrontation.”
Reading Vatican Waltz as I did, so soon after listening to the audiobook edition of Breakfast with Buddha, I’m not sure how accurately the author has created the interior voice of a young woman. There were many passages in Vatican Waltz (such as the above one) that I could clearly hear in my imagination the middle-aged, male narrator of Breakfast with Buddha – Otto Ringling – saying in the exact same words. (I suppose one could argue that spirituality has no gender, so it would make sense that Cynthia and Otto share patterns of thought, although starting from very different places, and that it’s not just the same author’s voice coming through in both narratives.)
Vatican Waltz was long in the making. The Revere setting seemed slightly behind the times to me, with this coming-of-age story supposed to be taking place after the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the move of the Boston archdiocesan office out of the city to the suburban town of Braintree. (In his acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author states that there were a number of major revisions over a period of years.) The novel will probably be controversial if, as a work of literary fiction, it gains much attention at all. (Interestingly, although Vatican Waltz was released by Crown, the author will publish his future books with a new, independent Massachusetts publisher, PFP Publishing – a company that is also reissuing some of the author’s older, out-of-print titles.) Vatican Waltz takes a thoughtful, seemingly reluctant, oppositional stance to some of the basic tenets of the Catholic Church. It reminded me in some ways of Faith by Ann Patchett, and I’m interested to see what reviewers have to say about it.
I am a big fan of Roland Merullo’s writing, so this review may be biased, but Vatican Waltz is a tough one to review without giving away too much of the action of the story. There actually isn’t much action; it’s almost entirely interior monologue. So, watch out for spoilers, even in the publisher’s description.
Dec. 3, 2013
Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of Vatican Waltz from the publisher through NetGalley, but didn’t finish it before it expired, so I purchased a Nook Book edition for myself.