“Susan Vigilante, an average Catholic wife … wakes up one morning in the romantic Italian hillside near the ancient village of Castel Gandolfo and has breakfast with Pope John Paul II.”
So says the promotional material for Breakfast With the Pope, a first book by Catholic author Susan Vigilante.
Well, not exactly, as you will find out once you start reading this brief and remarkably quirky book, Breakfast With the Pope. The publisher is Richard Vigilante Books (yes, there is a connubial relation). Even Mr. Vigilante is somewhat unusual. How many publishers do you know who work for a hedge fund on the side?
The actual production of the book also is a rarity, with high-quality paper and imaginatively artistic cover. It is almost enough to tempt you to throw out your electronic reader.
The book is about, well, everything. It is an account of several trips to Italy and particularly Rome that is reminiscent of the great mid-20th century English Catholic travel writer H.V. Morton. If your travel budget is depleted or your spirit rebels against intrusive airport security searches, pick up his books second-hand and you will have no need to purchase a plane ticket.
Susan is not an “average woman,” all disclaimers to the contrary. She is a well-published author and is known to her online fans as “Desperate Irish Housewife.” That gives you a picture of her writing style, which is highly self-revelatory and honest, at times achingly so. This is her first book, but she will have great difficulty in topping it.
In brief, she has written something like a modern-day personalized Canterbury Tales, a story of pilgrimage — in this case to an improbable breakfast with Pope John Paul. Along the way, she intersperses stories and descriptions of various characters whose lives are intertwined through their relationship with Susan.
The stories center around Susan’s friends and family and a recurring motif: the Vigilantes’ infertility and their excruciating efforts to conceive a child, told tragicomically in detail. A caveat: This is not a book to give your non-adult children to read, given the mildly graphic descriptions of their efforts. Nonetheless, it is a moving portrayal of the couple’s faithfulness to the teaching of the Church on licit methods of conceiving a child.
The book’s most compelling character is “Sharon,” the friend who acts as (lay) spiritual and material director of the despondent Susan. Sharon is a highly attractive woman and an heiress to boot (think of something along the lines of Holly Golightly or Aunty Mame). As you might guess, she eventually leaves the secular world to follow Christ in poverty as a religious in a severe congregation in Kentucky — leaving Susan desolate. As she puts it: “In all the years Sharon and I were friends in New York, I failed at virtually everything I attempted. I failed to get published, failed to get a job, I failed to get pregnant, I couldn’t make money, I couldn’t make babies, I couldn’t make any of my youthful dreams come true, I felt deeply ashamed of my whole life, I wanted to hide in a closet and never come out. … No one had ever permitted me to fail before Sharon. And now she was abandoning me.”
Susan’s other close friend is Kasia, who along with her graduate student husband and two boys is an émigré from Poland. Kasia’s mother was a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp — and, incidentally, a close friend of Pope John Paul ll. Along comes the day when the Holy Father is to confirm the older boy and administer first Communion to the younger boy — and the Vigilantes are invited, along with the now-Sister Sharon. What follows is the fascinating story of the Pope at ease among friends at breakfast at Castel Gandolfo and of Susan daring to ask a special favor of the Pope.
I wouldn’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that it is paradoxically unhappy in a way that somehow seems to typify the up-and-down life of Susan and why her friends Sharon and Kasia appear here under pseudonyms. But read the book for yourself and anticipate the day when it will be reissued under the updated title Breakfast With a Saint … at which point you may also learn the true identities of Sharon and Kasia.
Father C. John McCloskey writes from Chicago.
BREAKFAST WITH THE POPE
by Susan Vigilante
Richard Vigilante Books, 2010
208 pages, $19.95
To order: Richard Vigilante Books