'Vatican Waltz': Illuminating novel of a plain young woman impelled by her spirituality
By Roland Merullo
Crown. 304 pages. $24
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
In the acknowledgments at the end of this quietly but intensely ambitious novel, author Roland Merullo thanks his wife for her support over a period of years as he wrote and revised Vatican Waltz. She lifted his spirits, he writes, "in those hours, days, and weeks when it seemed I could never be able to tell this story the way I wanted to."
In this increasingly skeptical and secularist age, he has dared to write a story of spiritual quest, set in a world that may seem not only archaic but frankly foreign to many of his readers.
First, there is the premise. A young woman leading a surpassingly innocuous life, Cynthia Piantedosi, comes to believe God is calling her to become ordained as the first female Roman Catholic priest.
There's nothing particularly revolutionary about such a premise. Women in the Roman Catholic Church have felt themselves called to ordained ministry for centuries, and in the last few decades, that sense of calling has become an issue within (and without) the church.
And indeed, Merullo often walks a fine line between advocacy and exploration as he details the soul-altering adventures of a woman who comes to believe over time (though her faith is laced with generous dollops of self-doubt) that she is on a God-sent mission.
Mining the rich veins of scriptural imagery and the Catholic mystical tradition, the writer poses, in the character of Cynthia, questions that would be familiar to Catholic writers of a previous age. What separates human experience and divine calling? When does faith become extremism, sanity veer into delusion? And who, in the end, is to judge?
But as Cynthia seeks to fulfill her calling, she is doing it in a church under siege from years of scandal, one in which the forces of liberalization and tradition are fighting a fierce if sometimes secretive battle.
At first glance, it appears that the life of this 22-year-old nursing student, who lives at home with her widowed father in the working-class Boston suburb of Revere, couldn't be more ordinary.
A solitary soul with few friends and almost no experience of romance, Cynthia has settled into a life of routines: nursing school classes, subway rides, the occasional walk on the beach, a hot meal made by her taciturn Italian immigrant father, long chats with the parish priest.
But the writer soon introduces an element of mystery, one that reveals this young woman has a parallel, interior life as rich as her exterior life seems drab.
In a walk on the beach, a mere mile or so from the unremarkable home she shares with her father, she stares out at the water and feels intimately connected to the ineffable inner workings of the universe:
And for the first time in my life, that mystery took over the place, in my mind, where the man-shaped God had always stood. God - that word - could hold the shape of a person, but it could not possibly hold the vast, seething, spinning dimension of the world I was touching then. For the first time, no word stood between me and that mystery, no word, concept, or image.
One can see why this kind of direct, unmediated spiritual experience might cause those in charge of guarding church traditions to take notice, and more. As the novel progresses and Cynthia grows in confidence, so does the sense of menace emanating not just from church higher-ups, but also from more shadowy figures reacting to the possibility of church reforms.
After her parish priest, friend, and advocate Alberto Ghirardelli suffers a mysterious and fatal accident, Cynthia, impelled by growing confidence in her mission, gathers up the courage to approach other, more senior clergy.
Merullo's descriptions of her encounters with senior prelates are carefully detailed, delicately nuanced, and persuasive enough to convince the reader that it is possible for a young woman to board a plane for Italy (her first time in the air) and the Vatican without ever having gotten explicit encouragement to do so from church authorities.
In many ways, the strengths of Vatican Waltz are also its weaknesses. Many modern readers will find the insular world of the Roman Catholic hierarchy less fascinating than passing strange. Although it is wonderful to see someone attempt to describe the inner world of the mystic, there are reasons the inexpressible is not often expressed. There are times when the writer's language sings with the echoes of great Catholic writers like St. Teresa of Avila, but there are also moments when it is off-key, even clunky.
Skeptical readers who have become fond of the very human Cynthia may also find themselves sorely challenged by the ending.
But in the end, Vatican Waltz succeeds because there aren't enough eloquent, illuminating, and well-written novels about the spiritual life, still very much in need of chroniclers.
Perhaps Merullo's audacity, and his compassionate depiction of an ordinary woman grappling with extraordinary circumstances, will inspire more.
Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a freelance writer in Glenmoore, Pa. You can reach her at Bellettrelliz@gmail.com.