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.
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.
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.