I wanted to get down some thoughts about a book I just read while it’s still fresh in my mind. The book is The Opposite of Hallelujah, by Anna Jarzab. I’m not quite willing to say it is the best book of the year or anything, but it does so many things so well that I just want to do my bit to make sure that more people know about it and it doesn’t get lost in the end-of-the-year shuffle.
First of all, there’s the premise, which has to be unique in YA literature: a cloistered nun returns home, to the consternation of her family. The main character is 16-year-old Caro, who has pretty much a perfect life. She gets good grades (she especially likes science and math), she has good friends, she has a cute boyfriend (although he has been away all summer as a camp counselor), and she has doting parents. She also has a much older sister, Hannah, but Hannah hasn’t lived with the family since Caro was 8, and Caro hasn’t even seen her since she was twelve. At that point, she started telling people at school that Hannah was dead, because it seemed the easiest explanation. “You’d think the phrase ‘contemplative nun’ would mean something to kids who’d been attending Catholic school their entire lives, but it really didn’t. . . .To them . . . nuns were practically pre-historic, and it didn’t make any sense for my then twenty-three-year-old sister–tall, thin, blond as Barbie–to be working on her fourth year at the Sisters of Grace convent in Middleton, Indiana.”
But at the end of the summer before junior year, Caro gets the unwelcome news that her sister is returning home–leaving the convent. Caro–and her parents, for that matter–never completely understood why Hannah entered the convent in the first place; they definitely don’t understand why she is leaving–and Hannah isn’t doing much talking. Caro and her parents are pretty much Christmas and Easter Catholics, so the whole convent thing is a bit of a mystery to them.
Hannah’s arrival and her obvious unhappiness have an effect on all the relationships among family members. They are all struggling with being a family of four instead of three, and wondering how to incorporate Hannah into the family again–especially since Hannah mostly wants to sit in her room, reading or sleeping.
Meanwhile, Caro is dealing with normal teenage things, including the fact that her summer boyfriend has dumped her–just moments before she could dump him (don’t you hate it when that happens?). There’s also something of a mystery about Hannah, and–spoiler alert–I was relieved to learn that it had nothing to do with abuse. Caro develops three significant relationships during the book: with Hannah, with a cute new Polish boy at school, and with her pastor, Father Bob.
I particularly liked Father Bob, the science-loving and extremely pastoral priest. Despite Caro’s lack of belief (well, she prefers the word “universe” to the word “God”), she and Father Bob discuss many things, including Einstein, Godel, Newton, grief, faith, lack of faith, theodicy, vocation, and free will. Father Bob is knowledgeable, but gentle, and the discussions are humorous and interesting, never didactic. Caro says, “Father Bob was all about this, discovering things for yourself. He said a priest’s job was to lead a horse to water, but only if it was thirsty.”
I also liked Pawel, Caro’s new love interest. For one thing, it was great to have as a character a teenage boy who goes to church but also goes to parties. He’s a real sweetheart, but he has his own issues and blind spots as well.
But there’s a lot more going on than religion. A major underlying theme is truth, and another is the importance of families. Add M.C. Escher, single-bubble sonoluminescence, and Rube Goldberg machines, and you have a contemporary YA novel that just works on many levels.
So, I hope this fourth-quarter book gets some love and attention. It did get a starred review in Booklist this month, and Liz Burns liked it on the Tea Cozy blog at SLJ. It doesn’t fit any trend that I know of, but it was a really terrific read.