Harriet Scott Chessman will guest host #litchat on January 15, 2014 from 4-5 p.m. E.T. Follow the conversation through Twitter or login to our dedicated channel at www.nurph.com/litchat.
When you think about it, life is made of ordinary days sparked with extraordinary moments. Ordinariness does’t happen, it just is. Some people can perceive such ordinary things as a pattern in the chaos, they can hear the harmony in a score, or appreciate the unlovely in the midst of the beauty. These are the people of quiet, contemplative fiction. The fiction of Harriet Scott Chessman. Her latest novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things, joins three people in a trinity of love that fulfills the higher self, even as the characters are separate and chaste in their love of each other.
Begin with Benny. He dropped out of college after a heartbreaking turn with a girlfriend. It’s 1972 and the best means of self-punishment is a tour of duty in Vietnam. He returns without bodily harm, but like most Vietnam vets, his wounds are inside. He saw casualties all around him, but the death of his good friend Sully and then having seen the legs of his friend Mike blown from his body scarred his inner vision. The oldest of five children in a tight, Irish Catholic family, Benny finds it difficult to connect with anyone but his brother’s girlfriend, Isabel.
Isabel meets Benny’s brother, Liam, at Yale. The family loves her, even though she’s not Catholic, and soon she’s Liam’s wife. Isabel’s mother died of cancer when Isobel was quite young. Turning to Helen, a neighborhood friend several years older, Isabel is fascinated with the peacefulness of life at a nearby Benedictine Abbey where Helen has taken orders. Despite her marriage to Liam, she’s powerfully drawn to Benny. Isabel’s descriptions of the serenity, the honest, uncomplicated work in the gardens about the abbey, sound to Benny like the ideal place to hide from the harsh world.
Sister Clare is the name Helen takes upon entering service as a Benedictine nun. She’s a dreamer of prophetic and mystical dreams, who drenches herself in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Isabel’s visits to her at the abbey are reminders of the life Helen left behind, yet satisfy a maternal drive that she knows will never be fulfilled in the ordinary way. When Benny begins visiting the abbey to work in the gardens and the animal yards, Sister Clare struggles with the inner Helen who is still very much a woman who desires a man’s touch and understanding. It’s this natural human instinct that conflicts Sister Clare while preparing for her final vows.
Woven between these three people are threads of hope and redemption, crossed with the harsh reality of war and human strife. Benny’s good friend Mike, who returned from Vietnam without his legs, loses his struggle with his place in the world. His death lifts the curtain covering the horrors that play in Benny’s head, forcing him to face and finally forgive himself of the survivor’s guilt and sense of cowardliness he’d carried back from Vietnam. Sister Clare reflects upon the honest, transparent relationship with Mike as a thing of beauty, saying, “Could I have known Benny so well, if I’d met him outside, me in ordinary clothes and on my own, not in this Enclosure? Could such trust have grown between us?” Finally, as Isobel is the center string that binds the three together, it’s fitting that she and Benny meet at the abbey to celebrate with Sister Clare in her taking of final vows.
Chessman’s lyrical prose transports this story of ordinary people to heights of extraordinary beauty. It might have been titled, The Beauty of Ordinary Words.
Author’s bio: Harriet Scott Chessman has taught literature and writing at Yale University, Bread Loaf School of English, and Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program. In addition to The Beauty of Ordinary Things, she is the author of three acclaimed novels as well as The Public Is Invited to Dance, a book about Gertrude Stein. Her fiction has been translated into ten languages. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Follow Harriet Scott Chessman on Twitter: @hchessman.