Monday, December 21, 2009

Top 60 Novels of 2000-2009 Countdown, No. 10

The High Flyer and The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch

I first found out about Howatch's Starbridge series through a Christianity and literature mailing list I joined in 1994, about the time I first got on the Internet. The novels were recommended so highly that I overcame my reluctance to read "chick lit" (the covers were kind of flowery) and discovered a series of six exciting, intense, first-person novels revolving around a group of priests that followed their lives from the 1930s to the 1960s. The series focused on Starbridge Cathedral, a fictionalized version of Salisbury Cathedral, and it delved into theology and Christian mysticism. The priests themselves were deeply flawed, troubled beings who hit upon spiritual crises that required them to move into intense therapy and self-examination; one of the novels is narrated by a woman having an affair with one of the priests. The novels had interlocking plots; events that occurred in previous novels (or in subsequent novels) figured prominently in each individual work; and since the novels were written in first person, the readers often know more than the narrators themselves. Probably the strongest character was Jonathan Darrow, a priest with mystical gifts who enters a monastic brotherhood after his wife dies; he then leaves to start a new family with disastrous results at first; but he goes on to become a teacher and a mentor to the other characters. The fifth novel, Mystical Paths, focused on Darrow's son, Nicholas, a priest with gifts similar to his father's. The novel turned into a murder mystery and was by far the most disturbing of the series, and it ended in a kind of stunning tragedy and left a key conflict unresolved. 

Anyway, I read all six novels in the 1990s; they were exceptionally difficult to put down once I started them. Then in 1999, I discovered that Howatch had written in effect a sequel to Mystical Paths; it was called The Wonder Worker in the United States. It followed Nicholas, now in middle age, running a spiritual healing ministry in London. Several of the characters from the first six books show up in this novel. Darrow's marriage, announced in Mystrical Paths, dissolves, I was delighted that the stories were continuing into the 1980s. Then in this decade, Howatch published two more books in the series -- The High Flyer and The Heartbreaker. Howatch never shied away from sex in the Starbridge series, and here she really lets things go. In The High Flyer, a top London attorney finds herself in the midst of some bizarre metaphysical shenanigans, as her husband comes under the influence of a cult-like group led by a woman with powers similar to Nicholas's, only unconstrained by Christianity. In The Heartbreaker, a young man becomes a male prostitute; he, too, is connected to the cult, which Nicholas Darrow and company find themselves combating. Heartbreaker, in particular, has the trappings of a crime novel with a notable conversion in the middle. These novels don't fit as well together as the tightly constructed Starbridge series, but they explored many of the same themes as Starbridge, and they were exciting, involving stories about people I'd grown to care about.  The problem with the series is that, at the end of Heartbreaker, Howatch seemed to tease another book that would resolve one of they key conflicts in Mystical Paths, but she seems to have retired. I've been waiting six years for another book; will it come? 

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