Charged with erotic energy and an almost mystical yearning, Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, is a tour de force exploration of lust, marriage, longing, and love. Quatro, who wrote the rapturously received 2013 short-story collection I Want to Show You More, moves even deeper into the brave territory she exposed in those lavishly praised stories, exploring the tensions that play out when heightened sexual desire, intellectual frisson, and having one’s beliefs tested meet the quotidian routines and rewards of work, family, and faith ... Quatro’s special magic as a writer is her ability to illuminate and intensify Maggie’s secret (and ultimately finite) love affair so that it seems to resonate across decades of Maggie’s life, continuing to shape and inform her even as her marriage endures, her career thrives, and her children grow into adulthood. Incorporating a mix of narrative styles from epistolary to confessional to flashback, Fire Sermon is a virtuosic portrait of flesh-and-blood sensuality and the mystery of salvation.
There are books with front doors, through which the reader walks right in, and there are books with side doors. Side door books take more interpretive work, but yield special pleasures. Jamie Quatro’s fantastic new novel, Fire Sermon, is a side door book ... The mores of the Ellmanns’ lives are exceedingly conventional, as are many of the novel’s touchstones — weddings, baptisms, the death of pets. But the way this slim book condenses these happenings in the context of the affair gives them poetry ... The sentences burn with desire and disquiet. The novel is generously condensed, ardently focused, its mechanisms poetic, not expository. In fact, although it is fiction, Fire Sermon reminds me most of confessional poetry, the aim of which is uncompromising honesty and self-exposure.
... rich, illuminating images which distinguish Fire Sermon from the many other literary novels about infidelity ... transcends the familiarity of its subject matter through its formal originality, its erudite meditations on the intersections of religious devotion and erotic desire, and the breathtaking lyricism of Jamie Quatro’s prose, which manages somehow to be both intensely elegiac and as fluent as good conversation ... fulfills Quatro’s promise in dazzling fashion, meeting and at times exceeding the precocity and daring of her first published work ... There are so many moments in this fine debut that call to be read and re-read, flipped over and scrutinized—moments of searing, painful truth and gorgeously articulated delusion which ring with their own sort of truth about the lengths to which we will go to make sense of the inexplicable. Isn’t this the task of great fiction? Isn’t mystery, ultimately, as much as anything else, what God and Love have in common?
Quatro is good on the mores of this sort of courtship: the coyness, the posturing, the elaborately casual self-presentation ... We’re meant to understand why James makes Maggie swoony, but to us nonpoets he sounds tiresomely pretentious—so much so that I wondered whether Quatro intended us to roll our eyes...Prose as awful as this, from a writer of Quatro’s gifts, again raises the question of whether she means us to grow impatient with her protagonist ... Quatro repeatedly returns to this kind of egregiously full-throated religious language. The rest of the book—the descriptions of marriage and family—unfolds in a far less stagy register, allowing the reader to slip into the nuances of the novel’s emotional flow, only to be yanked out by this God stuff ... Worn down by Maggie’s breast-beating, I found myself missing the kinetic oddness of I Want to Show You More, a book that combines a charmingly flat, demotic style with a taste for the surreal ... we get God instead of such playful, parable-like turns. It’s not a trade-off I would’ve chosen. And yet. Eventually Quatro brought me around to her way of seeing things. The God stuff isn’t there to polish or to punish her adulteress. It’s essential to Maggie’s character and to what Quatro wants to say. In the end, the book is a profound, and profoundly strange, meditation on desire and how it connects us to the 'eternal' ... I was stunned by the notion, and enchanted by the way the book built to a crystallized idea rather than a scene or an event—thinking as a dramatic gesture is a pleasure found more commonly in nonfiction than in fiction ... Rereading with this idea of unsated desire fresh in my head, I found that Quatro had seeded the problem of wanting throughout. What had seemed a lot of overblown palaver about God felt illuminated, now that the “Fire Sermon” echoed in my mind. Once I understood its creator’s design, the pattern of the book became beautiful to me. By the time she’s done bobbing and weaving her way through her narrative, Quatro makes us feel the absolute necessity of desire, which she reveals as something shining: a hammered-gold necklace, begged for, worn twice, given away.
... what [Quatro] does with the topic here is anything but run-of-the-mill ...
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Much of the novel engages in religious debate as Maggie is forced to re-calibrate her understanding of faith, fidelity and forgiveness. The earnestness with which she approaches her inquiries might put some readers off and, indeed, if it weren’t for the poetry of Quatro’s prose, especially her ability to see beauty in the quotidian details of the domestic everyday, one might accuse her of precociousness. But there honestly wasn’t a moment in the novel when I didn’t wholly believe in Maggie’s struggles, both her loftier attempts to reconcile the pureness of her sexual desire with her belief in God’s grace, and the realities of not wanting to leave her flawed but loving husband of 23 years ... Strip it bare of plot and it would still shimmer with meaning ... a remarkable novel written by a uniquely talented author.
Ms. Quatro’s attempt with Fire Sermon is to meld a story of midlife adultery with an enquiry into the fate of religious faith in the secular world...It’s a daringly unguarded experiment that matches some of its overwrought silliness with generous samplings of poems and sermons, as well as Ms. Quatro’s own fine turns of phrase ... Still, a frustrating imbalance persists. As is usually the case in contemporary fiction, faith is honored more in the breach than the observance, and while we get a vivid picture of the love Maggie transfers from God to James, it’s hard to see what God did for her in the first place. Churchgoing, worship and even prayer are all but absent. Was she ever a real believer or did she just play one in academia? Maggie quotes T.S. Eliot’s worry that there will one day be two literatures, 'one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world.' Ms. Quatro commendably seeks to close the divide, but pagan rites still take up all the space.
Here is a smart novel for adults that deals honestly with the difficulty of nurturing faith in the midst of a world that frequently resists our attempts to prescribe it meaning –– a world full of complications such as infidelity, despair, and disease that undermine the tidy proverbs of a Sunday morning sermon ... One could perhaps criticize Maggie for her somewhat solipsistic view of the world, but her character is discerning enough to call herself out and at least entertain the possibility that what she feels for her distant poet is not love, but merely the inevitable result of martial doldrums ... These are provocative questions, and questions without easy answers, certainly not answers that could be doled out by a laser lightshow and projector screen on a Sunday morning. Their complexity rings true to the difficulties of maintaining any relationship over the span of a lifetime. To that end, Fire Sermon deserves to find an audience beyond only those who will see Maggie’s faith as a reflection of their own.
Fire Sermon is, in other words, one of Quatro’s short stories extended to novel length. Yet somehow this saga lacks a novel’s amplitude. The narrator, Maggie, is a writer. Even she seems aware that this thin if fervid book brings little that’s fresh to the theme of illicit sexual desire ... Maggie conflates sexual and religious desire, sometimes to memorable effect. More often, these meditations set off the pretentiousness alarm that rests, like a smoke detector, at the top of one’s mind. You may finally have to cover the thing with plastic wrap and a rubber band ... There’s real humanity in this novel, and there are insights about love and longing. Quatro is a gifted writer. But Fire Sermon ultimately reminds the reader of Emma Bovary’s observation that there is 'in adultery all the banality of marriage.'”
Critics claim that stories about adultery are going out of style. Contemporary adultery is so commonplace and banal that no one’s interested. Does any 21st-century woman stand to lose what poor, dumb Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina did back in the day? With Jamie Quatro’s stunning Fire Sermon, the answer may not be as simple as we suppose ... These questions aren’t the usual ones you see in a contemporary novel, and they make The Fire Sermon gripping.
... [a] thrilling, maddening debut novel ... Quatro writes wonderful prose. Many of the details of Maggie’s domestic life with Thomas rang around my head for days after I read them ... a fresh, startling thing, a strange and beautiful book I could imagine pressing into the hands of my women friends. So why, then, was I also so bothered by it? Why did I have to go back to the beginning as soon as I finished, to search out clues for my unrest? How had I come away from a work of such intensity with the feeling of anticlimax? ... Maybe it is because women’s desire has always been so secretive and smuggled that it is often spoken of in awed tones of this kind, that this religious ecstasy seems fitting, even if it grates on me—but grate it did. I found myself wanting both more and less from this book, less of the earnest theatricality of desire, more reason to believe in it ... In the end many of the criticisms I feel most keenly, and feel most conflicted about voicing, come from a place which proves Fire Sermon's necessity; a book like this is so rare, relatively speaking, that I wanted it to do everything ... the final pages...and much else which is so good here, make me grateful for Fire Sermon, despite its frustrations, and hopeful that it will eventually be just one book of a great many which speak seriously about woman’s desire.
The earnestness with which she approaches her inquiries might put some readers off and, indeed, if it weren’t for the poetry of Quatro’s prose, especially her ability to see beauty in the quotidian details of the domestic everyday, one might accuse her of precociousness. But there honestly wasn’t a moment in the novel when I didn’t wholly believe in Maggie’s struggles ... Tender and tumultuous, Fire Sermon is a remarkable novel written by a uniquely talented author.
A stunning first novel about faith and yearning in the crucible of a strained marriage and a brief affair ...The lyric cadence of Quatro’s writing gets into one’s veins as she stealthily transforms the most common of plotlines into a scorching analysis of the ‘agony of temptation,’ prayer, the relationship between Eros and the divine, and a ‘renewed sense of holiness.’ Maggie longs for a ‘return to a viable literature of faith.’ Quatro infuses that tradition with fresh, molten energy.”
Adultery may be a tale as old as time, but Quatro’s take is freshly urgent, as she grapples with themes of desire, sin, commitment, guilt and renunciation while writing frankly about both marital and extramarital sex. Thorny theological issues and literary allusions to writers ranging from John Updike and Lydia Davis to Sharon Olds and Linda Gregg underpin the novel … Quatro’s fiery metaphors rage through the pages, as hard to contain as the recent California conflagrations, beginning with epigrams from Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land … The result is an impassioned, deeply moral exploration of devotion and ‘what’s waiting on the far side of fidelity.’
Quatro skillfully explores this inner conflict by having Maggie lay bare her desires and devotions, crises and quandaries. A multifaceted woman emerges who speaks to us from the heart ... As with Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Fire Sermon examines infidelity by deftly balancing the sexual and the spiritual. There is agony and ecstasy, and the tantalizing hope of redemption through confession. All is rendered with fierce intelligence and lyrical grace. Passionate and intimate, few first novels are so adept at tracking 'the guiltiest swervings of the weaving heart.'
[Quatro's] prose in Fire Sermon is symphonic, erotic. Nimble passages paint vivid pictures of a woman filled with a longing for a life she feels she can never have, and elucidate how Maggie’s sanctuary, her religion, gives way to shaky ground. Yet Maggie is a frustratingly passive character who lacks agency. Her primary modus operandi is inaction ... Unlike Jenny Offill’s incomparable Dept. of Speculation, another very short novel that acutely explores the emotional depths of an extra-marital affair, Fire Sermon, leaves us wanting. Brief excerpts of dialogue with Maggie’s therapist allude to but don’t fully exhume her other transgressions ... Still, the lyrical writing may very well redeem its shortcomings, and Quatro’s trenchant introspection on faith, particularly as it falters, is stirring.
... slim, beautifully combustible ... Quatro treats the mysteries and complexities of love, marriage, faith and infidelity like the highly flammable subjects they are — elements of light, heat, energy — as fundamental as they are dangerous. With searing prose and a tilted approach, Quatro builds a bonfire from the tiniest sparks of well-honed detail, and this reader was drawn to its flame ... Quatro captures the nuances of the modern epistolary — the subject-line drama, the appropriate sign-off, the challenge of voice and how to strike that balance of familiarity, humor, warmth and, eventually, intimacy — in formats (email and texting) that can be tone deaf and mechanical ... I have a Masters in theology and even I sometimes found these sidebars stilted and tritely erudite ... The strength of this condensed, spare story is Quatro’s stripped down prose. Her voice is naked, direct, urgent. Phrases stand alone, untethered to conventional grammar constructs. They dare, implore, seduce. The narrative’s chronology is nonlinear, it’s dizzying and difficult to follow, which, come to think of it, is exactly how our lives play out ... Quatro juxtaposes flashbacks and immediacy in the same sentence, and her writing evokes this unsettled nature of being, the way longings and lust can upend our needs and musts, the way the realities of today can be unmoored by the hauntings of yesterday, by deeds or dreams left done or undone ... If you like a sequential plot, this book might drive you crazy. But if you appreciate an author who can make and break her own rules and isn’t afraid to play with fire, then you’re in for a treat ... I confess it took me a while to warm up to Quatro’s disjointed narration, but the steely precision of her descriptive passages are enough to carry this slim book, this embered ode to longing and devotion in its various forms: religious, married, parental, familial, forbidden.
... a smart novel for adults that deals honestly with the difficulty of nurturing faith in the midst of a world that frequently resists our attempts to prescribe it meaning—a world full of complications such as infidelity, despair, and disease that undermine the tidy proverbs of a Sunday morning sermon ... deserves to find an audience beyond only those who will see Maggie’s faith as a reflection of their own.
These are juicy ideas, and a darker, less earnest novel might have successfully explored them. But Quatro fails to weave the ideas driving the narrative into the actual events, and we veer between a didacticism, in which Maggie intellectualises her desires, and the affair itself, often rendered in language that is cloyingly intimate, insufficiently sieved. The gap leaves the God issue feeling tacked-on and not entirely convincing. There are moments here that have the strength of her stories...But too often, the writing doesn’t hold up.
Though some readers might be put off by the preciousness of the characters (they discuss 'apophatic' literature and read Moby-Dick to their young children), Maggie’s quandary—should she grab happiness if it causes tremendous pain and risk losing her connection to God?—is affecting and memorable. Quatro’s novel will appeal particularly to readers interested in a dissection of how one reconciles belief with desire.
...this will be a lot to swallow for some readers, religious faith creating an extremely grandiose context for the tossing and turning Maggie goes through as she deals with her desire and her guilt ... The people who connect with this debut novel are going to love it, and everyone else is going to roll their eyes and throw it across the room.