Rebecca Martin is a single mother with an apartment to rent and a sense that she has used up her illusions. I had the romantic thing with my first husband, thank you very much, she tells a hapless suitor. I'm thirty-eight years old, and I've got a daughter learning to read and a job I don't quite like. I don't need the violin music. But when the new tenant in her in-law apartment turns out to be Michael Christopher, on the lam after twenty years in a monastery and smack dab in the middle of a dark night of the soul, Rebecca begins to suspect that she is not as thoroughly disillusioned as she had thought. Her daughter, Mary Martha, is delighted with the new arrival, as is Rebecca's mother, Phoebe, a rollicking widow making a new life for herself among the spiritual eccentrics of the coastal town of Bolinas. Even Rebecca's best friend, Bonnie, once a confirmed cynic in matters of the heart, urges Rebecca on. But none of them, Rebecca feels, understands how complicated and dangerous love actually is. As her unlikely friendship with the ex-monk grows toward something deeper, and Michael wrestles with his despair while adjusting to a second career flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, Rebecca struggles with her own temptation to hope. But it is not until she is brought up short by the realities of life and death that she begins to glimpse the real mystery of love, and the unfathomable depths of faith. Beautifully written and playfully engaging, this novel. is about one man wrestling with his yearning for a life of contemplation and the need for a life of action in the world. But it's Rebecca's spirit, as well as her relationships with Mary Martha, Phoebe, her irresponsible surfer ex-husband Rory -- and, of course, the monk downstairs -- that makes this story shine.
Rebecca's mother, a middle-aged new-ager, is the first to reach out to Mike and draw him into society, at the same time forcing Rebecca to notice him as a man. As they become better acquainted, Rebecca and Mike each begin to see more clearly that what they thought they wanted from life may not be what they need. As events unfold, each is forced into actions they didn't plan to take.
While not a big fan of relationship stories, I enjoyed these characters. They are flawed but likable, and progress steadily throughout the book towards a realistic and satisfying relationship. The secondary characters, including the ex-husband, the Relationship guy, the boss, and the abbott, also are nicely handled and likewise grow and change in positive ways.
I would recommend this book, especially to anyone who does like this type of relationship story. There is a fairly strong element of spirituality, and much of the conflict swirls around this, but there is no overt "preaching". Likewise, there is an extra-marital sexual relationship, but nothing explicit is described. The edition I read contains group discussion questions in the back.
I loved the dialogue between the two, and the way that they tentatively eased into a relationship that left both of them vulnerable. I especially enjoyed the letters the monk wrote back to a fellow monk that he'd left behind in the monastery, where you could track his spiritual path as he struggled to find his place in the world after a 20-year hiatius.
I understand there is a sequel to this book which I may or may not read as I thought this book was pretty much perfect just on its own.
The book explores the interior landscapes of both characters as they struggle to come to terms with the failures and heartaches of their lives. It speaks to the centrality of love in human experience, and says some things about prayer and God that make sense to me.
My favorite quote from this book:
I suppose that I pictured an eternal rest by a heavenly poolside, with umbrella drinks served in the unimpeded sunlight. But we do not serve that larger Love by renouncing our particlar loves for some mystical lounge chair; we serve by being faithful to those loves,by suffering them wholly. We are born to love as we are born to die, and between the heartbeats of these two great mystweies lies all the tangled undergrowth of our tiny lives. There is nowhere to go but through. And so we walk on, lost, and lost again, in the mapless wilderness of love.
Oh! and there's going to be a sequel called The Monk Upstairs. Haha.
Rebecca is a 38-year-old divorced woman with a little girl and a devoted boyfriend whom she doesn't love but who won't stop asking her to marry him. Her ex-husband, who gets Mary Martha on weekends, spends his days surfing and smoking pot. To help make ends meet, Rebecca decides to rent out her small garage apartment.
The first person who inquires about it is Michael Christopher, who has spent virtually his entire adult life in a monastery. After differences with his superior, who thought Michael emphasized contemplation over work (as in the gospel story about Mary and Martha), he is now on his own in the real world. He carries all his possessions in a small bag. He gets the apartment, and soon like so many others gets his first job at McDonalds.
While the romantic relationship that builds gradually between Rebecca and Michael may seem predictable, the path Farrington takes the couple down is full of surprises. A lapsed Catholic, she doesn't think much of her tenant's contemplative nature either. That is, until his spiritual insights, combined with a gift of servanthood unrecognized at the monastery, help pull her through the crises that soon overwhelm her.
An intriguing cast of supporting characters, including Rebecca's irrepressible mother and her playboy boss, add substantially to the story.
Farrington, like Rebecca, was a Catholic who lost his way before finding it again. He actually spent part of his boyhood in a convent, where his aunt was a nun. So he knows the territory, and he makes the most of it in this intriguing novel.