- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

At first blush, the plot of Liam Callanan’s “All Saints” sounds a little ridiculous, and hypercritical of Catholics. In Or ange County, Calif., a 50ish female teacher at All Saints Catholic High School has an affair with a male student, setting off calamitous reverberations. The priests who run the school keep the teacher on; (somewhat) in their defense, they only know about a single, student-initiated kiss.

It’s as though Mr. Callanan woke up one morning and decided to combine the story of Mary Kay Letourneau with the Catholic priest molestation scandal. Yet “All Saints” proves a fascinating and often thought-provoking read, told in meticulously polished prose.

In teacher Emily Hamilton, who tells “All Saints” from the first person, Mr. Callanan has created one of the most interesting characters in recent memory. Despite her nightmare of a life — an illegitimate, miscarried pregnancy at 17, followed by three troubled marriages — she narrates in a light (but not flighty or naive) tone.

She calls herself a “tough old broad” and smokes the cigarettes she confiscates. With Martin, a priest. And she jokes that the health and sex ed class she teaches should be called Stop That! (There’s a “Beavis and Butt-Head” joke or 10 lurking in the fact she teaches sex ed, but they never come up.)

She peppers the text with bits of Catholic lore, most notably the Cadaver Synod story. In late-ninth century Rome, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus, his predecessor, exhumed. The live pope held a trial against the dead one for sins against the church. The proceedings determined Formosus was guilty. It’s an incredible story, and it recurs in “All Saints.”

In the so-called “Saints and Sinners,” a church history class Ms. Hamilton also teaches, three students eventually become main characters. There’s Edgar, the student the teacher sleeps with, who has a crush on Cecily. And Paul, who has a crush on Edgar. And Cecily, who has a crush on Paul.

Ms. Hamilton also works in tales of her own adolescence, including the details of her teen pregnancy. Hearing the news her mother sent her to Queen of Peace Retreat Center, a Catholic facility. There the girl met a priest named Henry, who lived as a hermit in the wilderness near the retreat and helped her through her problems. The miscarriage began on a hill there. This gives Ms. Hamilton some insights when a student likewise gets pregnant.

The plot thickens with one moral dilemma after another, from suicide to abortion to (obviously) inappropriate conduct. The readable diction keeps the story moving through good and bad, though that’s as much a critique as a compliment. In breezing through complicated debates, Mr. Callanan has ignored much of what makes those debates so emotional.

Take abortion. A discussion between Ms. Hamilton and Martin starts off encouragingly — Martin argues that a fetus constitutes innocent human life, and once pregnant a woman cannot “choose” to end that life. Ms. Hamilton counters that even when a choice is wrong, it should be a choice. “The ‘child’ is a bunch of cells right now,” she argues. Martin comes around quickly, though, something no one of priest-level conviction could do.

That’s not necessarily to say “All Saints” supports abortion rights through art as the movie “Cider House Rules” did. Indeed the ending, if nothing else, shows that adults should not recommend abortions to teens without serious consideration and thorough fact-finding. It’s just to say the book glosses over the issue a little more smoothly than it should.

Another problem with “All Saints” is Ms. Hamilton’s tendency to bounce between time periods and events. To a certain degree it fits her easygoing personality, but when she gives away plot developments early, only to come back and fill in the details later, it doesn’t help in the suspense department.

For example, when readers only know that Ms. Hamilton and Edgar kissed once, on a Wednesday, she reveals they “one surfing Saturday, did more than talk.” She doesn’t explain in full for quite some time, so there’s no particular reason to give this away. Plenty of surprises crop up along the way, but it’s baffling that Mr. Callanan chose to ruin some of them.

The final issue is the story’s improbable drama. It seems that every character faces some life-changing or life-threatening situation. Readers see Ms. Hamilton (then Emily) miscarry, Martin get prostate cancer (one of his doctors theorizes that celibacy increases the risk, and there’s some murky evidence for that), two teenagers create a baby, a high schooler jump off a tower (Ms. Hamilton also gives that one away too early) and a student struggling with his sexuality. Even Henry doesn’t fare too well.

All the stress makes for a wonderfully tense narrative behind Ms. Hamilton’s shiny delivery, but it seems no one is just fine. The kids aren’t all right, growing frustrated more than growing up. And the adults struggle fruitlessly instead of just getting older. Good news is out of the question; not one major event is a positive one. What begins as the central story — a teacher having sex with a student — becomes just one link in a chain of misery.

By the end it’s clear that “All Saints” is a story without a moral. Ms. Hamilton observes her actions’ consequences and feels pretty bad, but it never seems to hit home that she could have chosen to behave differently. Mr. Callanan drains whatever moral certitude readers may have had left by making Edgar 18, old enough to consent even if there is a difference in authority between him and Ms. Hamilton. The author paints the situation as plenty awkward (to the point of amusing sometimes, particularly in one scene indescribable in a family-friendly publication), but never creepy.

And whatever parallels may exist between Ms. Hamilton’s decisions and the priest molestations of a few years past, Mr. Callanan never explores them. The book, to put it bluntly, raises many questions but answers few to none.

That may well have been Mr. Callanan’s goal, and if it was, he succeeded remarkably.

Robert VerBruggen ([email protected]) is Assistant Book Editor.

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