A SAINT, MORE OR LESS

Henry A. Grunwald, Author
Henry A. Grunwald, Author . Random $23.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6149-5
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The vexed intersection of religion, politics and personal life is explored in this engaging if somewhat didactic historical novel set during the French Counter-Reformation. The story is loosely based on the lives of two real-life religious figures: Barbe Acarie, founder of the French branch of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns, and Nicole Tavernier, a street preacher, miracle worker and charismatic holy woman. As allies and then rivals in the effort to rejuvenate the Catholic faith, the two women interact with a number of historical and fictional personages, who hash out doctrinal disputes in occasionally stilted dialogue and sample the many varieties of 16th-century religious experience. Through them Grunwald, a former Time editor and author of the memoir Twilight: Losing Sight and Gaining Insight , explores tensions between the church establishment and popular religious enthusiasms, between male authority and women's tacit power, between religious intellectualism and mysticism and between Catholic pomp and sensuality and Protestant austerity and puritanism. Although the author's purpose is to explain an age "drenched in faith and blood"—which is not so different from our own, he suggests—the book is really about the rise of secularism: the hero is the liberal King Henry IV, whose Edict of Toleration ended France's religious wars, and the main point-of-view character is the fictional Dr. Monnet, a religious skeptic and standard-bearer of the scientific mindset. Although the characters' tendency to psychoanalyze their religious impulses gives the book a slightly anachronistic tone, the combination of rich period detail and three-dimensional characters helps bring this fascinating epoch to life. (Dec.)

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