This title was rather kindly sent to me by its publishers, Pan Macmillan/Picador. This review has also been published to NetGalley, GoodReads, LinkedIn, and my social media accounts.
Maggie is entirely devoted to her husband Thomas, their two beautiful children, and to God—until what begins as a platonic intellectual and spiritual exchange between writer Maggie and poet James transforms into an erotically-charged bond that challenges Maggie’s sense of loyalty and morality, drawing her deeper into the darkness of desire.
A daring debut novel of obsession, lust, and salvation by the highly lauded author of the story collection, I Want To Show You More, Fire Sermonis a tour de force that charts with bold intimacy and immersive sensuality the life of a married woman in the grip of a magnetic affair.
“It would be difficult to overstate the wonder I felt while reading this novel. It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing — for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life.”
— Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
Fire Sermon is not a love story. It is not a tale of adultery, or a novel about lust or passion. It is a novel about Love with a capital L, about its nature and many expressions, and about a woman’s desperate longing for that all-encompassing love, for beauty, and for a coherent and cohesive life.
Maggie, an academic doing research in Theology, was brought up within a traditional, closed-mind evangelical church. Her religion, her faith and its teaching are of paramount importance for her, expressed not just in the principles for a virtuous life that she observes for most of her life, but also in her love of God.
As all good, observant Christian girls brought up in strict churches, at twenty-two Maggie marries the first young man she goes out and has sex with, Thomas. As should a choice of life partner be for any good Christian girl from a good, Christian, quite affluent middle-class family, steeped in the principle that the accumulation of money is a sign of God’s favour, Thomas is already shining in his financial career. His prospects are excellent, and Maggie’s family is very proud of her choice of partner.
In the first few years of their marriage, Maggie and Thomas have two children, both problematic — and traumatic — deliveries. Maggie dotes on them, as she dotes on Matthew, as she does on her family and on the concept itself of a Christian family. Thomas is not a believer, but as they move away from Maggie’s family and settle down on their own, she draws him into her new church. Twenty years go by.
Through her love of poetry and the beauty, peace and balance it seems to bring to her, she meets James, a poet she admires. Their first meeting is in July 2014, at an academic conference in her hometown, Nashville. Maggie and James correspond for two years, until they meet again, twice, at other conferences: once in New York in September 2016, and the third and last time in Chicago in April 2017. It is at this last meeting that Maggie and James sleep together. James has left his wife by then; it is never said in the novel that he did so because of Maggie, but it quite apparent in everything that is said that James is as in love with Maggie as Maggie is with him, a love that is not just the fire of sexual passion they succumb to in Chicago, but the communion of minds they have maintained during all those years of corresponding with one another. It is in Chicago, too, that Maggie decides to break up all contact with James.
Her faith and religious teachings now visibly shaken and repeatedly questioned and analysed, instead of burning in what she chooses to see as merely her and James’ lust, and whereas James choice is, contrary to Maggie’s, of ending a marriage where there is no longer any love and communion, Maggie chooses to burn in the living out of her previous choices: Thomas, her marriage to him, her family by him, their life.
In Fire Sermon, Jamie Quatro successfully explores several of the traditional sermon types, including that of sermon as conversation. Thus Maggie is depicted pouring her soul out and writing it all down in her journal: all the letters she will never send to James, and which resemble more the conversations she might have had with him if he was there with her; her conversations with a third person, where she debates her actions and her beliefs; what values and precepts are embodied by her faith and religious teachings; and her own feelings, observations and perceptions of what she is going through and where she intends to take herself, tracing her path towards complete detachment from the senses as a means to achieve the balance, serenity and the coherence she desires. Maggie flows from one type of sermon to the other, one element of the sermon as form to the other: she goes from exposition of her values and of her deviation from them, and her guilt for her actions, to exhorting herself to a life of complete commitment to her values, and finally to the practical application of those values, in the pursuit of the path Maggie has drawn for herself.
Structurally, this is one of those books where the form is of paramount importance to, and heavily influences, the story being told. Given the weight of religion and religious observance in the story, structuring it as a sermon (which is, as defined in Wikipedia, “an oration, lecture, or talk by a member of a religious institution or clergy [which addresses] a Biblical, theological, religious, or moral topic, usually expounding on a type of belief, law or behaviour within both past and present contexts) is not only the logical choice, but the structure that presents itself as the most appropriate for this novel.
In her narrative process, Maggie explores the various traditions, styles and functions of the sermon. As her sermon is delivered to us in an impromptu but extemporaneous fashion, mirroring two of the traditional styles of sermon delivery, with her journal entries being unplanned and quite spontaneous but bearing behind her narrative all the weight of her religious upbringing and her Theology scholarship, Maggie is established, first and foremost, as an academic, a Theology scholar, and as a firm believer and practising Christian: sermons are indeed part of her upbringing, and of her academic research. Moreover, her faith appears as unshakable. She is presented to us as the embodiment of a trustworthy narrator.
But there is something else there. Something insidious and dark, almost sinister, which insists on remaining there in spite of Faith, in spite of any religious convictions, Maggie’s or our owns. In spite of it being a sermon, and in spite of (or because of?) the ‘sermon’ as either form or vehicle. It is the function of a sermon to extoll the virtues of faith, and to exhort the faithful to the acceptance of dogma and the practice of their faith. Accordingly, all throughout her ‘fire sermon’, Maggie seems to feel a seemingly unacknowledged need to keep extolling her husband’s virtues and worth, and the place and meaning he has in her life. Thus she keeps asserting, over and over throughout her sermon, that he is ‘a good man’, while we are otherwise allowed to glimpse that he is not so. But she needs to tell herself that he is, repeatedly, the words becoming narrative and the narrative becoming incontrovertible truth, the substance of reality — and such is, in fact, the nature of dogma itself.
Maybe she does so because that is the only way she can exhort herself to stay with Thomas, to leave James, to forget her folly of longing for human love over its divine form; or maybe because she needs to use that mistaken choice of her youth as the narrative she can continuously flagellate herself with.
It is for the reader to make the necessary inferences, discern the implications and the hidden relationships of things, as we put together the puzzle of form and style, the sermon Maggie delivers to herself and the poetic language she uses, the facts she narrates, the feelings she discloses. We see the story through Maggie’s eyes, read the sermon that explores, in a most intimate way, her innermost being, her suffering and her longings, her determined path towards illumination; she is presented, from the beginning, as a trustworthy narrator, as she unveils herself and her prevarications before our eyes. We have absolutely no reason to doubt her, what she knows, her perceptions, her analysis.
Writing her novel in the form of a sermon, Jamie Quatro borrowed her title from the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, most commonly known as “Fire Sermon”, where Buddha’s preaches detachment from the senses, and describes all internal and external senses and perceptions, all resultant mental phenomena and consciousness as “burning”: burning with passion, with aversion, with delusion and with suffering. It is only through this burning that one can become disenchanted and detached from the senses, and consequently achieve spiritual elevation. Ultimately, it is with this process of “burning” that Quatro’s Fire Sermon is concerned.
And burning Maggie does. She burns in her passion and love for James. She burns in her sexual aversion for a man whose first sexual act with her was one of violence, a man who turns violent and forces himself on her every time she denies him sex, a man for whom she never felt any sexual attraction or intellectual affinity. She burns, because it was her choice, and she has to go through with it: the man she chose to marry, the life she chose to build. She burns with suffering, because she tried to burn her passion and lust for James by having sex with him, as if doing it once would definitely close the issue and bolt the door for her temptation, but it turns out that it wasn’t just lust after all, but “the real deal”, a love more real than anything she had ever experienced before, a love where minds and bodies are in perfect synchronicity, completely attuned. She burns in her self-imposed deprivation of James and all that James means and embodies. On her deprivation of love with a capital L, if such love can ever belong between a man and a woman in the eyes of the church. She burns in the guilt of her adulterous act. She burns in the delusion of her perfect husband, of her perfect marriage; her delusion of marital duty; the delusion of her Christian duty to salvage her marriage. She burns in her longing for what she doesn’t seem to be able to achieve: beauty, peace and serenity, sexual fulfilment, an untainted proximity with God, a life coherent with all the teachings and tenets of her religion. And Maggie burns in suffering, for all she loses as she loses James, as she loses her chosen path, as she loses herself. She burns in her Faith, and in her questioning of that same faith, of the validity of its precepts, of her choices, of her path.
Therefore, Maggie and Thomas carry on living together as husband and wife; having marital sex, Thomas now in full knowledge of Maggie’s feelings for another man and lack of sexual attraction for him, Maggie choosing, despite her aversion, to placate him and avoid any more violence, any more of Thomas accesses of fury and forced sex.
No one ever knows about Maggie’s burning — except herself. With the years, a great part of Maggie’s fire finally starts to subside. James is consigned to the realm of memory, all the what-could-have-been and the what-ifs relegated to the realm of fantasy. He observes their Chicago agreement and never tries to contact Maggie. In the end, Maggie begins to wonder whether he had loved her as much as she had loved him, but the fact is that, despite the intensity and pain of her love, she too never quite contacted him after Chicago. He writes his memoirs, and Maggie abstains from — she avoids — reading them, even though she wonders whether she figures in there somewhere: she does not want to find out, preferring to bask — burn? — in her memory — and her fantasy? — of a perfect, eternal love.
With the years, too, Thomas’ fire seems to slowly start to burn out, and he seemingly learns to become more accommodating, more compromising, more understanding maybe. He puts an end to his sexual aggression. Maggie too accommodates, compromises. They salvage their marriage, their family. They observe the precepts of their religion and salvage their life commitment, albeit in detriment of love and of life’s essence and real truth: what appears over what is, because, in the end, the teachings they believe in are that the material, the touchable, the sensible, the whatness of things is not what is, it is not the essence, it is not the truth. Following from Plato and Aristotle, and their theories of being and essence, and ending up in a full circle, the truth of anything, the essence, it belongs only to the realm of the spiritual, of God. The realm of the form, from which all other things are copied, and which alone gives meaning to being, to life itself.
‘This book is bright and dark by turns but always shot through with a vital, unerring grace. Plus it’s about love and death, sex and God. What more could a reader want?’ ~ Jenny Offill, author of Dept of Speculation
‘I loved it, and devoured it in one sitting. Quatro’s voice is singular, heartbreaking and gorgeous. A novel to be treasured.’ ~ Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane
‘Fire moved me deeply, provoked me powerfully and managed to reach parts of me I hadn’t even known were there. The novel stays under the skin. I feel haunted by it, in all the best ways.’
~ Leslie Jamieson, author of The Empathy Exams
‘Fire Sermon is an exquisite and astonishing story of female desire, and one of the most haunting portraits of a marriage I’ve ever read.’ ~ Lily King, author of Euphoria
‘It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing – for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life. Great writers write with their whole lives, with everything they have seen and thought and felt. Jamie Quatro is such a writer, and Fire Sermon is such a book.’ ~ Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
‘It’s rare, to the point of near non-existence, to find a book that has such literary weight and heft, yet reads like a sonnet. Also a shot of light. An education. A mirror. Terrifying.’
~ Samantha Harvey, author of Dear Thief
‘Written with a rhythmic pulse that reflects the desire it describes, Fire Sermon is a beautiful novel.’ ~ Megan Bradbury, author of Everyone is Watching
An amazing and amazingly beautiful read. The rhythm and poetry of the language will leave you quite breathless at times. And the storyline will break your heart. It is not a love story, as much as a deep reflexion on the nature of love itself, and the many kinds and expressions love can come under, from the most physical and visceral to the most platonic, most spiritual: the love of and within the family, the love of God and the church, the love between a man and a woman, the love embodied in a complete communion of minds. The love of self. The act of love that constitutes Faith.
Fire Sermon is a book about Love. But mostly it is a book about longing, to once more quote Garth Greenwell. It is a longing that comes from deep within the soul, from deep within a being: the longing “for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life” which, in the end, and irrespective of how much our faith might weigh in our life, is what we all long for: complete fulfillment, aesthetically, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
and something else:
It is indeed a fact that any book edition is carefully attuned to its target audience… Have you noticed how the cover for the American edition emphasizes the “Jezebel dimension” of the story, while the UK cover emphasises the image of Maggie as a penitent sinner? We can but wonder whether covers are but culturally determined clues as to what’s between them, nothing more than prompts for the readers’ interpretation of the core moral dilemmas and emphasis of the story they contain. All in all, give me the UK cover any time, as the one that more closely reflects, to my mind, what this book is really all about.
Genre pegging: Literary fiction
Verdict: thoroughly recommended
Shelves: my favourite books; literary fiction;