Told in alternating chapters by four strong voices, The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn
is at once a story of hope and desperation, of fact and fantasy. Janis Hallowell's characters' distinctive voices come through with absolute clarity: Chester, the homeless man who believes that Francesca is the Blessed Virgin and names himself her protector; Francesca, a shy, withdrawn, 14-year-old who plays the cello and longs for her father's attention following her parents' divorce; Sid, Francesca's troubled and mostly loyal best girlfriend; and Anne, Francesca's all-business, world-traveling, I-love-my-daughter-but-science-is-god paleobotanist Mom.
Hallowell describes the line where the wish to believe in a divine presence crosses over into holy madness and the conviction that the wish has been fulfilled. Chester says, after noticing the strong fragrance of roses emanating from Francesca when she "appears" to him: "The smell of roses, the velvety ache of them, lured me in
I am no newcomer to strangeness... It's my curse and my blessing that I can smell things that other people can't... Anger coming off a person is an acrid, mustardy thing... and lying has a cloying, soapy small that makes my mouth pleat." He is not surprised that he is the first to know that Francesca is a Blessed Virgin, carrying a Savior.
While the novel is reminiscent of David Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest, Hallowell's characters are infinitely more appealing; they are eccentric without being caricatures. Everyone in the story has dimension and importance: Ronnie, the restaurant owner who serves meals to the homeless; her sister Rae and Rae's son Jonah, a lovable five-year-old genius, and Father Gervais, a hip Jesuit who is sent to verify Francesca's healings as miraculous--all contribute mightily to a tightly woven fable. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
A fleeting cult of the Virgin Mary springs up around a Boulder, Colo., teenager serving meals to the homeless in Hallowell's spacey, lightweight debut. Francesca Dunn is a fairly ordinary eighth-grader at a local school for kids who have emotional problems-in Francesca's case, an eating disorder after the divorce of her scientist parents. She and her best girlfriend, Sid, who cuts herself and has a drunken, lonely mother needing sympathy and money, work at Ronnie's Cafe helping out with meals for the homeless, where a delusional transient named Chester is seized suddenly with the fantasy that Francesca is the embodiment of the Virgin and can bless the sick. The idea catches on alarmingly, attracting zealots and sufferers who camp in droves around Francesca's house. In brief chapters, four characters comment on the unfolding drama: Chester, who truly believes in Francesca's powers and feels grateful to serve as her bodyguard and protector; Sid, who is by turns admiring and resentful of her friend, and ultimately trades on their friendship for cash; Anne, Francesca's mother, a divorced paleobotanist whose traveling allows others to step in and take advantage of the growing frenzy around her daughter; and Francesca herself, a stately third-person presence willing to do what is expected of her. The conceit is snappy, and the narrative moves effortlessly, but the novel lacks a genuine sense of the spiritual lives of its characters. Instead of exploring the intricacies and ambiguities of religious faith and revelation, Hallowell builds her story on platitudinous sound bites.
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