A novel about a woman dealing with the death of a child, marital separation and mental illness has been a bestseller on Amazon’s woman’s fiction page in recent months. Surprisingly, this bestseller comes from a small, independent Catholic publisher mainly known for spiritual and devotional works. Although not the first fiction title to be released by Sophia Institute Press, Rachel’s Contrition is bringing new attention to their fiction imprint.
The story opens: A non-custodial mother returns a 4-year-old son to her estranged husband after a weekend visit. Rachel Winters tells her story in bits and pieces. Post-traumatic stress keeps her from remembering all that has happened. Rachel came from the wrong side of the tracks and made it her ambition to marry money. Between pursuing an education, learning to mimic blue-blooded classmates, and exerting her power to attract men, she succeeded. For several years Rachel enjoyed a story-book marriage as a pampered doctor’s wife and the happy mother of two.
That perfect world collapsed when Rachel’s baby girl died through a dreadful accident. The reader can only speculate as to how spiraling grief eventually drove her from her family. Rachel blames her husband for the death of baby Caroline. She also suspects that, while they live apart, he is having an affair. Although Rachel pulls herself together for the visits with her son, she spends far too many days in despair, staring at the TV or seeking oblivion in drug-induced sleep:
“My brain is full of holes,” she says. “I think it’s the medicine, the anti-depressants and sleeping pills, but the doctor disagrees. He says everything will come back over time, that my mind is trying its best to deal with what happened to Caroline. That’s where he’s wrong. I don’t think I can deal with it at all, ever. I see the days stretching ahead of me in a stupor of nothingness. Death would be better than my life. ... Death. I shiver as I remember my midnight dip in the pool. I already failed at suicide.”
A few things begin to draw Rachel back toward life. One is Lilly, a teen who favors goth makeup and non-stop sarcasm. Rachel senses a pain even deeper than her own behind Lilly’s abrasive persona, and their common experience of suffering forms a bond between them. Another is the acquaintance she has made with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, which began with a holy card found lying on the ground. While at an in-patient psychiatric center, Rachel is shaken by the saint’s account of her own spiritual desolation:
“I close my eyes and let tears seep down my cheeks as I let my pain and fears mesh with hers. I am not alone. This saint, this innocent who had never done anything compared to the vile sins I trailed behind me, had felt as bereft as I! I read on: ‘Sometimes a little ray of sunshine illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but later, the remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness thicker still.’ ... I close the book and hold it to my chest. I whisper into the dimness of the room, ‘Show me mercy ...’”
Michelle Buckman has created realistic characters who don’t lose their flaws simply because they have begun to strive for goodness. Her plot keeps readers in wonder and suspense, right through the shocking climax and satisfying end. Readers will be gripped as they follow Rachel on a journey of darkness to light, through horror to hope.
Register correspondent Daria Sockey writes from Venus, Pennsylvania.
by Michelle Buckman
Sophia Institute Press, 2010
352 pages, $14.95
To order: SophiaInstitute.com