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Fire Sermon


Fire Sermon

Jamie Quatro’s first book, the short story collection I WANT TO SHOW YOU MORE, garnered comparisons to the work of Flannery O’Connor, with characters who wrestle with matters of morality and Christian faith, all while situated in circumstances that are extreme or borderline absurd. Her debut novel, FIRE SERMON, picks up some of these themes as well. In some ways, it can be read as an extended exploration of the idea of faithfulness --- regarding “faith” both in the religious sense and also in the sense of being committed to one’s romantic partner. Seeking the places where these ideas overlap and at times collide is the book’s focus.

Maggie and Thomas are enacting the upper-middle-class ideal. Married when both were young, they since have developed rewarding careers while making a beautiful home and raising two mostly well-adjusted children. But when we first meet Maggie, when she is in her late 40s, she has just committed adultery with James, a poet whose work she has long admired and whose email correspondence quickly evolved from an academic and creative exchange of ideas to something more flirtatious.

"FIRE SERMON is slim in size but huge in ambition, cementing Quatro’s place as a writer whose intellect and talent portend even more great work to come."

Quatro’s narrative travels freely through chronology and voices, moving back in time to show the progression of Maggie’s solid but undeniably imperfect marriage with Thomas (told largely in a detached third-person voice), as well as her growing fascination with James (told using a variety of techniques, including dialogue that could be delivered in the therapist’s office or in the confessional).

Confession, in fact, is a huge component of Maggie’s story, culminating in her (partial) confession to Thomas near the novel’s end, but also in Maggie and James’ admission of their feelings for one another and the ongoing examination of sin and guilt that is in the background of all of Maggie’s thoughts and actions.

Maggie and James come together, in part, because of their shared academic interest in religion, more specifically Christianity, and in their shared Christian faith. Thomas’ lack of belief --- and, more importantly, his lack of interest in interrogating or even considering theology --- has long alienated Maggie from her husband. Maggie also has lost virtually all sexual attraction to Thomas (despite the fact that she consistently describes him as more physically attractive than James), and James’ ham-handed (and worse) attempts to rekindle sexual passion further divide the couple.

Maggie’s eventual liaison with James is described almost as religious ecstasy (hearkening back to the early Christian mystics whose writing James and Maggie discuss early in their correspondence), leaving readers to wonder whether Maggie’s sexual encounter with James is actually some sort of religious experience, or whether Maggie uses this language and imagery to rationalize what, in the end, is just another affair. Perhaps, however, the truth is more complicated than that. As Maggie suggests in the titular “Fire Sermon” near the end of the book, perhaps temptation and transgression, lust and longing exist as a means toward eventual grace and a more intense relationship with the divine.

These are heavy musings for a novel that also includes frank and titillating sex scenes, as well as honest accounts of the loneliness, frustration and joy that go hand-in-hand with marriage and parenthood. FIRE SERMON is slim in size but huge in ambition, cementing Quatro’s place as a writer whose intellect and talent portend even more great work to come.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 26, 2018

Fire Sermon
by Jamie Quatro

  • Publication Date: November 13, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 080212898X
  • ISBN-13: 9780802128980