Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings MacLean (Ignatius Press 2013):
Full disclosure: I am a long-time reader and HUGE fan of Mrs. Cummings MacLean’s ministry for single women: Seraphic Singles and her other persona, Auntie Seraphic. Mrs. MacLean also wrote the book of essays on the single life, The Closet’s All Mine!. So I was quite thrilled to hear and then read her first novel for adults.
Catriona is a 30+++ year-old woman in Germany living with her boyfriend Dennis, nephew of an Archbishop. Yes living with living with. Though a popular spiritual writer in the UK now employed by an American Catholic news conglomerate, Catriona, or Cat, finds herself embroiled in a terrorist plot somehow connected to her new, young and naïve friend, Suzy. Told in a Lost-style narrative, the book gets creative with time: opening in media res with the murder of Suzy, flashing back and forth between the odd friendship between Cat and Suzy and the post-murder confrontation of relationships, morals, and the question of innocence.
Political intrigue, romance, suspense, moral musings—this book has got it all. It is an outstanding work of contemporary adult fiction. Unlike so many American bestsellers and literary “royalty” with their bloviated sense of self-importance and page count (hundreds upon hundreds), Ceremony of Innocence is a meaty , but just-the-right-size read. Mrs. Cummings MacLean does an excellent job depicting not just the current sociopolitical and religious climates of modern Germany, but how this setting and frame force us to confront our own notions of innocence and culpability; faith and fanaticism. Divided into parts—or acts if you—each section of the novel gives you something to feast on: the opening mystery of who killed Suzy Davis, the bombings that blow up the tension, the crescendo of all the action and subplots coming to a head—I didn’t want to put it down. And lest non-Catholics feel wary about this “Catholic novel,” I want to assure you that it is not thinly-veiled catechesis or overtly theological. Rather, the characters are Catholic, the themes—which are universal—are looked at through the Catholic lens of our narrator; giving it flavor.
From a Catholic point of view, Mrs. Cummings MacLean takes care to present the faith in a holistic sense. Suzy’s intense admiration for the teachings on marriage and family is one visage; the small asides about the flirtatious chaplain or the liturgical dance Mass at a more…liberal…parish are others. All experiences are real and true to our own lives, but described in such a way as to indicate to the reader which is the beautiful and which is the lacking; which is the faith and Church and which is the actions of people. Mrs. Cummings MacLean also takes care to not make the sin of scandal through her writing—Cat is very aware that her choices with Dennis are not in the right, so when she attends Mass, she does not present herself for the Eucharist. The novel respects the faith without resorting to preachy, flowery, or radical treatment.
Overall, I would highly recommend this book to adult readers. If a 16++ teen girl has come across Mrs. Cummings MacLean’s writing for young single women (whom she says is her primary audience—young adult women, not YA in the mainstream sense of “teen”, but the Catholic sense of 18+/college age/young professional) and really wants to read “Auntie’s” book, I would leave it to the parents/guardians to determine if okay. The themes and plot points mentioned above are mature, but do keep in mind that in high school, particularly in advanced English classes, students are tasked with examining the “classics,” many of which deal with mature themes and plot points taken on by middle-aged adult characters. I think the reason we view these books as acceptable for older teen readers is because, at least in most of the classics, wrong was wrong, consequences suffered, and the reader was left not just with an understanding of human nature, but a sense of moral truth—not relativism. On that bar, A Ceremony of Innocence can be judged fitting.
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