Book Review: 'Forgiveness 4 You'
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? It’s a hell of a question, especially for those of us who’ve amassed more and more years, with ever more chances to duck responsibility, commit sins of omission, and otherwise plunge into the sort of wrongs that make for sleeplessness during the long stretches before dawn. The question underpins the odd, often compelling, and spiritually knotty core of Ann Bauer’s new Forgiveness 4 You.
This is the third novel by Bauer, currently a visiting professor at Macalester College (and one-time Minnesota Monthly staffer). Her previous book, The Forever Marriage, dealt with the aftermath of a troubled relationship (in which the husband died on the first page). It was noted for unstinting, unsentimental depictions of characters being roughed up by the harsh edges of existence, and this time out, her vision broadens to a restless exploration of absolution itself—what it is, what it isn’t, how we receive it and whether we’re worthy.
Our protagonist, Gabe, is a former Catholic priest toiling in a hole-in-the-wall Chicago bookstore (clearly he isn’t one for growth industries). One day he meets a customer preoccupied with something weighty. She turns out to be Madeline, an ad exec wracked with guilt over a past relationship and how it affected an innocent child. When Gabe offers a listening ear and straightforward, sensible absolution, a certainty clicks for her: Something that feels this good can be a major moneymaker.
Bauer has also worked in the ad world, and she gives us a credible blow-by-blow description of what comes next—a crack team assembles to package and market Father Gabe and his gift for forgiveness. Parts of the narrative flag due to Gabe’s passivity (his own greatest sin lurks in the story’s background, as yet unexplained—when it does arise, we tend to acquit him on circumstantial grounds), but we get the point: When everything in the world is up for sale, why not add the spiritual erasing of our worst deeds to the list? It’s breathtaking in its cynicism.
The book is compulsively readable, if at times feeling as though the narrative stakes could have been ratcheted up a turn or two. We get glimpses of why we should care about the characters, but generally they’re held at arm’s length (in an appealing twist, a traitor in the ranks is summarily judged, and more or less completely forgiven). Still, the sense that forgiveness is one of the most crucial elements of our time on Earth—and no easy matter to attain—permeates the book and holds an intriguing mirror up to most any reader’s worst acts.