In The Cloister, Mr. Carroll...has produced a sweeping, beautifully crafted book—perhaps his best yet—that draws readers into the inner sanctum of Christianity, with its shameful contradictions but also its enduring possibilities. He conveys a vital lesson about religiously inspired violence and the prospect for peace but avoids being heavy-handed, instead toggling lightly between two fraught moments in history. He weaves together a complex story of spiritual traditions and their lasting political legacies.
Carroll, as religious historian and church insider, goes into a fair amount of ecclesiastical detail about the 12th century, which will fascinate some readers and send others skimming to the end of the chapter. But he keeps the action moving along ... Carroll is at his best in the last few chapters, when he explores each of his characters’ feelings of culpability for the tragedies that they knowingly, and unknowingly, set in motion ... the challenge is how to move forward, fully conscious of the hurts they’ve inflicted, but not seeking a facile or temporary forgiveness. Here in the braiding together of the three stories, past and present, Carroll shows that for his characters, and indeed for all of us, the greatest wisdom may lie in forgiving oneself.
Mr. Carroll vividly evokes New York in midcentury ... He weaves a patchwork of disparate threads, threads unraveled from clerical vestments, that, when quilted together, spell out the single word that the book embodies ... Their [the protagonists'] awkward convergence becomes an incandescent, allegorical outgrowth of the agonizing introspection that Abélard and Héloïse undergo in their search for self-awareness.
Father Michael Kavanagh, an Irish-American priest plagued with doubts about his church; and Rachel, the guilt-ridden tour guide and Holocaust survivor. Their story and their philosophical debates, set in New York City in 1950, provide an intriguing stream of historical, religious, geographic and plot crosscurrents with the medieval tale [of French monk Peter Abelard and his pupil Heloise] ... The possible romantic parallel is just one of many crosscurrents that make The Cloister a literary detective game, even if some of the historic references, including Abelard’s supposed friendliness toward Jews, are debatable ... Perhaps the biggest dissimilarity is that Kavanagh and Rachel are more believably human than the mythologized Abelard and Heloise. When she isn’t nobly brave and insightful, Heloise ridiculously slips into bodice-ripping zingers ... But overall, the parallel holds. Indeed, in pushing his readers—in both his fiction and nonfiction—to ponder tough religious topics...Carroll is continuing the important discussions made famous by Peter Abelard.
Now seems a particularly apt time to read a thoughtful novel about standing up to political and religious intimidation, when too many countries are beset with a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, and new scandals of sexual crimes and cover-ups by the Catholic church continue to unfold ... Carroll imbues each era with wonderfully specific details, like a 1950s coffee shop with its 'linoleum tiles, Formica tables … and round tin ashtrays' or how matins, vespers and compline define the daily rhythms of a 12th century French monastery ... For centuries, Abelard and Heloise have been celebrated in song and literature as one of history’s great romantic couples. Carroll’s depiction of them, based on their letters and Abelard’s works, highlights the spark and danger of the early romance, but focuses more on its long unhappily ever after.
Carroll sets the bar high in a novel that shifts seamlessly between epic love story, the anatomy of a crisis of faith, family tragedy and trauma survival saga. While the separate parts initially seem tenuously connected, as the novel progresses they interlock to show the far-reaching impact of choosing one path over another as the moral right for a huge portion of the world population ... Carroll uses his thorough mastery of the philosophical underpinnings of Church history to buttress his portrayal of the deeply wounded souls linked to it. Both moving and enlightening, The Cloister will engross readers of any--or no--faith.
Fascinating in its evocation of the twelfth-century Catholic Church in France, this lavishly detailed historical novel serves as an education in historical philosophy, a poignant tale of devoted love, and a portrait of a postwar human crisis influenced heavily by both ... A heavy emphasis on description and philosophical debate slows the pace some, but those who relish historical fiction with a strong intellectual underpinning...will be right at home here.
Of faith, doubt, and sorrow: Carroll (Warburg in Rome, 2014, etc.) delivers another religiously charged novel, and a fine one at that ... You don’t have to be Catholic—or Jewish, for that matter—to appreciate Carroll’s story, though it probably helps. A rich, literate tale well told.
Carroll’s latest novel (after Warburg in Rome) is a sweeping, heartbreaking blend of history and fiction ... The entwined stories move at an engrossing rhythm, making this a very magnetic, satisfying novel.