A thought-provoking novel about convent life at the turn of the century. Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy is a gripping, even life-changing book. For the Sisters of the Crucifixion, each day is a ceaseless round of work, study, and prayer--one hardly separate from the other. Their daily life is itself an act of devotion, caught here in a series of illuminated tableaux: hundreds of yellow butterflies alighting on eight gray habits, moving through a field; a sister praying as she "turns over a great slab of dough that rolls as slowly as a white pig"; nuns warming their hands on the flanks of horses, swinging scythes through timothy grass, crushing grapes with their feet.
Into this idyll comes Mariette--young, pretty, devout, but, as her father says, perhaps "too high-strung" for the convent. Prone to "trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and, as he put it, 'inner wrenchings,'" Mariette scalds her hands with hot water as penance, threads barbed wire underneath her breasts while she sleeps, and is convinced Jesus speaks to her. Her very glamour disturbs the gentle rhythm of the nuns' lives. But when she begins bleeding from unexplained wounds in her hands, feet, and sides, the convent is thrown into an uproar. Is Mariette a saint? Or just a lying, hysterical girl? Where do we draw the line between madness and faith, mysticism and eroticism, the life of the spirit and that of the world?
It's to Hansen's credit that he never provides easy answers. Mariette's stigmata may or may not be genuine; the novel's achingly gorgeous prose is the true miracle here. Mariette in Ecstasy is a brief, precious book, not a single word in excess, not a single word left out.
"In this quiet and forceful study of religious passion, Hansen places an extraordinary spiritual experience in the center of a deftly evoked natural world, namely, rural upstate New York just after the turn of the century. At summer's end, when she is 17, Mariette Baptiste, educated daughter of the local doctor, enters the cloistered convent of Our Lady of the Afflictions as a postulant. Her religious fervor, understated but determined, makes an impact on the small community of nuns whose days and nights are measured in a round of prayer and farm work changing only with the seasons. Their ordered life is disrupted, however, as Mariette begins to fall into a series of trances from which she awakens with stigmata, which heal as spontaneously as they appear. The feelings of skepticism, jealousy and adoration evoked in the nuns, Mariette's own response and that of the Mother Superior are delicately, indelibly drawn in Hansen's authoritative prose." - from Publisher's Weekly