Both the story and the author reside in Maine, my home state. Though the novel delves deeply into the French culture and I’m accustomed to contrasting my own Protestant roots to this tiny but robust Catholic subculture, I’m forced to take a longer and more loving look: we humans are so much more alike than different, though we might honestly acknowledge many superficial and delightfully puzzling (and sometimes frustrating!) distinctions.
The title is a quote from Proverbs 27:7: “The full soul tramples on the honeycomb, but to the hungry, any bitter thing tastes sweet.” It is easy to see our differences as trivialities when we can finally acknowledge the communion of pain. Here, in hell, it’s not a question of you vs. me but us: “the business of human striving [feels] common to us all: in this is the presence of God.” Monica Wood so beautifully harvests the ripe ear, pummels the seed into soft flour, kneads the loaf and serves such a sweet meal that I’m left rather stunned at this Eucharist! (Well, yes, I do get carried away; however, like the priest after mass, I find myself carefully savoring the crumbs! I offer you a few to tempt you to the main meal.
Lizzy is orphaned at the age of two and adopted by her uncle, Fr. Mike. Mike is at the tail end of a long line of siblings, all of whom have died prematurely. Mike clings to his favorite sister’ child, and she to him like survivors to the flotsam of a sea wreck…innocently and happily…until disaster strikes and Fr. Mike is accused of sexual abuse. At the age of nine Lizzy looses her precious third parent. Nearly drowning once again in the inhuman atmosphere of boarding school–where she’s sent by her overburdened “wicked step mother”–she does not surface until finally she’s reunited to a childhood chum at the University of Maine. She recognizes and marries a fellow “lost soul” and settles back into the small town in which Fr. Mike raised her, working as a guidance councilor. As the story opens she’s a recovering hit-and-run victim. Her husband of about 5 years is tempted to run off with another woman; she knows it, and goes off jogging in black clothing on a rainy night. Drew is not the kind of man to cut his losses and run. He stays, but it’s a long slog back to marriage from the brink of infidelity. In the midst of the slog he utters one of the most poignant lines: as a comment on her relative attitudes towards her lost uncle and himself: “You forgive the one who leaves and you blame the ones who stay.” Too true, and she knows it. She blamed him for her accident, her pain. Drew is not responsible for their lack-luster marriage, the road from romance to disillusionment to love is a hard one for all of us. It’s always a mutual responsibility, if a marriage is possible at all. (Too often, and unsurprisingly in our addiction sated world, it is not). Liz finds herself emotionally unfaithful when she’s able to confide in a man who’s willing to listen to the wild story of what happend to her in ICU. She finds herself, unexpectedly, both innocent and guilty and becomes much more understanding towards Drew. As the mystery of “what happened” unfolds, Drew finds himself freely acknowledging his unbelief and cements their new-found relatedness in an unconditional, unsolicited, brand new “I believe you.” “This, it turned out, -[thought Liz], was the actual apex of romance. To be absolutely believed.” Faith, as it turns out, is not primarily about religion. Religion, “re ligio”, retying the broken thread, is about relationships, both human and divine. Religion, at bottom, is about mending, healing, dealing with our brokenness…not only with God but especially each other.
Another tidbit: Liz is guided to make a confession to her fifteen year-old client who gets sexually involved with “the [nineteen year-old] town delinquent.” It’s known, even to her client, that Liz was “molested” by her priest uncle. When Andrea fails to break with her “boyfriend”, allowing him to crudely caress her publicly, Liz tells her that though her uncle did not abuse her, she would have allowed him to if he’d wanted. She recognizes Andrea’s desperation because it was her own: “I would not have said no. I would have allowed it, Andrea, I would have embraced it, because he was all I had.It was just dumb luck that my uncle was a good man. Because I’d have loved a bad man just as much.” When Andrea asked if she was comparing her boyfriend to a pervert, she calmly responded, much to Andrea’s surprise and delight: “I’m comparing you to me.” Andrea considers her the epitome of decency. Andrea’s self-image is very poor, as everyone’s tends, though most of us hide this better than some, especially from ourselves!
I hope these crumbs send you to your book shop or library. I’ve touched merely the tip of the ice-burg–a mystery lies beneath and is surprisingly solved with an unexpected “ah ha; I knew it all along!”, though, of course, I didn’t!!
The climactic reconciliation is an act of utter grace though Liz never spares the horses of effort. Perhaps it’s her determination to always go the distance, no matter what, that makes the gift of forgiveness that much more precious. There are some things which “cannot” be forgiven but all things are accomplished “in Christ”, gratuitously, quite outside our measly wills. It’s this and not our “hard work” which makes our lives “blessed.”
— Reviewed by Sr. Betty Brown
Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood
San Francisco, 2005