This book could have easily become a cliche; it centers on the extramarital affair that Maggie has with her penpal-turned-friend-turned-lover James. But there are a few things that keep Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro from spiralling into an overdone narrative. Firstly, Maggie is quite religious, which of course raises a few eyebrows right off the bat. Secondly, Maggie’s marriage appears strong, and her husband Thomas is a fairly good guy (other than the fact that he’s got some issues in the bedroom that Maggie never seems comfortable addressing). Lastly, James lives nowhere near Maggie’s hometown of Nashville, so they rarely see each other in person, relying mainly on letters to continue their affair. See? I told you this book was full of surprises.
This is a very short ‘affair’: 205 pages, and many of the pages are only half-full because they are letters. This was the perfect length, because it kept my interest without delving too deeply into needless backstories of the characters. I am constantly harping on about this, but so many books could really do with a haircut, and shorter books tend to be better written, which is another reason I want to recommend this novel.
Overall, I think the best way to describe it would be a ‘meditation on desire’. Shockingly there’s not alot of sexy bits in it even though it describes an extra-marital relationship. It’s more an unravelling of self-exploration and self-denial. Maggie and James’s relationship sprouts out of an academic admiration of each other, so their conversations are pretty high-brow and philosophical. Apparently this is what happens when english professors enter into a relationship; they analyze EVERYTHING. I didn’t mind this personally, especially because these parts didn’t drag on but I think it’s worth mentioning nonetheless.
The timeline of the story is quite broken up, we are constantly jumping back and forth through time. Everything is told from Maggie’s perspective so we don’t know much about James or his family life (other than the fact that he’s married with children too). We learn about how Maggie and Thomas met, what their life was like when their kids were young, how their relationship evolves over time. In fact, my favourite parts to read were the ones that centered on Maggie and Thomas alone because their marriage is full of contradictions, but aren’t they all? Another unique aspect to this story is the fact that Maggie keeps this affair a secret for a long time, and we don’t often hear about that particular perspective. What is it like to cheat on your husband then go years without telling him? Does the guilt slowly eat away at you, or does it lessen over time? Do you convince yourself it didn’t happen? And of course Maggie’s religious zeal adds a whole other layer to her secret that readers will find fascinating.
I don’t have any complaints about this book, I found the writing engaging and evocative, and the characterization of Maggie to be believable, if somewhat hard to relate to (as my husband exhales a sigh of relief!). This is a nice quick read for someone looking to dip their toes into a literary, domestic tale of strife.
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