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Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son Paperback – October 17, 2006

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Editorial Reviews Review

Peter Manseau's deeply personal memoir is a meditation on family, church, faith and self. Oh, and God too. The story of rejecting the faith you are given, only to embrace it again in some form (or at least make peace with it) may seem familiar, but lost within the loving detail of Manseau's writing the reader discovers it anew. A spirit of tenderness and generosity permeates the pages of this story, but always leavened by unflinching honesty, the salt that keeps the flavor from the first page to the last. Manseau brings us into his sense of wonder as he traces the journey of his priest-father and his nun-mother who, if they had stayed true to their initial calling into the Catholic church, would have ensured he and his siblings never came to exist. Vows also brings us into the strong Boston Catholic culture of half a century ago, and near its end we find an unexpected left turn into the very heart of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman church in 2005. But however intrinsic to the book these elements are, they only inform the story, and never overwhelm it. Primarily, as he traces the journey first of his parents, and then himself, we are left with a sense of joy over seeing how life itself tends unruly and writes its own story while we are busy making our plans. And though religion itself is on every page of the book, in forms both personal and institutional, the heart of the book is its humanity.--Ed Dobeas --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The title says it all: a twin set of Catholic dreams and ideals gone awry—or holding fast, depending on what angle you're looking from. Manseau's memoir returns to the 1950s, the early years of his parents' devotion to the Church, and their eventual straying. Lawlor gives a solid reading of Manseau's story, which aches with the tenderness of a son's love for his parents. His voice occupies only a small range, shifting slightly to indicate emotion, affect or the speech of others, but adequately gets out of the way of Manseau's narrative. He chooses not to attempt the inimitable Boston accent of the book's characters, for the most part, wisely leaving the sound of their true voices to his listeners' imaginations. Lawlor stakes out a tone part nostalgic, part removed and part regretful, nicely duplicating the feel of Manseau's book and its conflicted feelings about the Church that so thoroughly dominated its protagonists' lives.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (October 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743249089
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743249089
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,296,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Manseau is the author of the history One Nation Under Gods, the novel Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, the memoir Vows, and the travelogue Rag and Bone; he is also the co-author, with Jeff Sharlet, of Killing the Buddha. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. He holds a doctorate from Georgetown University, and is currently curating an exhibit on American religious history for the Smithsonian Institution.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

90 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Sharlet on September 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Peter's and even co-authored an earlier book with him. But that's why you should trust me -- I've seen this guy develop as a writer as only a former collaborator can. I always thought he was very, very good -- but who knew he'd write the first really significant book about American Catholicism of the decade? Vows challenges the Church, no doubt. But it also demands of non-Catholics a reconsideration of how faith, faithlessness, and sex converge; how a story of a scandal is really a history of ideas; and how love and ideology clash and reshape one another.

Vows is a smart book on the surface and a brilliant book beneath, a theological treatise well-disguised as a memoir that turns out to be a thriller. His arguments are more subtle -- and more moving -- than a brief against priestly celibacy. They are also natural arguments, which is to say that they emerge for the reader from the flow of a story and not from a didactic declaration. The most stunning achievement of this book is that its intellectual depth is matched so perfectly by its narrative force.

The final chapters of the book, in which Peter's mother, a former nun, hunts down the priest who abused her, are as gripping as a crime novel even as they present original ideas about the meanings of vengeance, justice, the Church as an institution, and the Church as an body of believers, prey to all the same weaknesses and failings as the flesh.

That shouldn't limit this book to those who think about religion. It is every bit as much a story of a family bound together, uneasily, by its loyalty to an institution that rejects it. It's the story of individual lives amidst the swirl of complicated, often dangerous beliefs -- about God, of course, but also about duty and promises and freedom.

Vows is a great and important book.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Cathy Goodwin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Frankly, I didn't expect much from Vows. So many religion-based memoirs end up suffocating the reader with jargon and emotion. Others focus on internal struggles that lead to snooze time.

But once started on Vows, I wanted to keep going. Manseau displays a dazzling array of writing skills, moving flawlessly back and forth between his father the priest and his mother the nun, and from present to past. And Manseau has a gift of seeing the broader context of a story about ordinary people: a young man and a young woman, encouraged to "enter religion" in an era when vocations were higher than they've ever been, before or since, in the US.

Manseau reveals the truth behind the numbers. Some applicants felt truly called to the religious life; others had a little help from well-meaning mentors. And ultimately we learn that his mother's early religious history included stories of abuse that now seem all too commonplace.

A true storyteller, Manseau emphasizes the ironies of his life. By an odd series of coincidences and mistakes, his parents met in Roxbury and married. They remained loyal to the Catholic church, but their children rebelled. Manseau played video games while pretending to attend services - and grabbed a parish bulletin to take home to keep the peace.

The last third of the book presents an unsparing but often hilarious tale of Manseau's encounter with religion during his college years at University of Massachusetts. Manseau should be admired for me keeping awake for page after page of college memories: discarding an archeology major and digging for religion instead of artifacts. He avoids yet another trite "religious journey" story by focusing on the here-and-now, so that striking moments are presented with irony in the context of the mundane.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By David on October 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Vows" is the rare book that manages to seamlessly weave personal narrative with the larger issues of the day. Indeed, it explores perhaps the biggest questions we have regarding faith, identity, loyalty, strength, grace and parenthood, and how one family has tried to bring the answers to those questions into harmony.

This is no attack from the outside. Manseau is not an iconoclast for the sake of iconoclasm. Rather he tells the story of the love of his parents and their love of the Church, loving it so much they needed to betray some of its historical dictates in the hopes of creating something even more profound.

It also portrays the complexity of the 1960's as period in which individuals were exploring opportunities to make institutional changes through thoughtful, intellectual challenges. This view is often lost among the clichés of flowerchildren and stock footage of Woodstock.

And lastly, Manseau also pulls off a neat trick, managing to be funny and irreverent without ever losing respect for his subject. Who would think that you could refer to St. Augustine as "Mr. Singing-Farts," with all the honor and esteem due a Doctor of the Church?

It is an exceptional work.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Cocoringo on October 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
For someone as ill-informed about the Catholic Church in the United States as I am, I admittedly picked this book up somewhat naively, thinking it would be an edifying read. Little did I know that it would be an incisive, compelling page-turner with much larger implications.

This is a tale of defiance, of resistance to an institution that refused to adapt itself to the changing climate of the 60s, and one man's plight to drag it kicking and screaming into the modern world, if not return it to its original form - where celibacy among priests was optional.

The 60s history is captivating. The priest and nun met in the Roxbury area of Boston, during a tumultuous period in which race riots, fringe hippy movements, poverty, crime, alcoholism, and drugs were rife. Both were thrilled to 'bring the word to the streets', however unsavory this could be.

This book is not a manifesto against celibacy, but a very moving personal memoir about a family caught in the crosshairs of scandal, borne of resistance to the blind acceptance of tradition and of the unwillingness of the members of the Catholic administration to acknowledge its more 'unseemly' underbelly.

This book touched me because of something quite universal, yet increasingly rare: People willing to risk their livelihoods, their personal comforts, even their emotional well-being, for what they believe in. Although it is somewhat perplexing to me that the Manseaus remain proponents of an institution that won't have them or their children, perceived as "ex damnato coitu", their steadfast convictions and their son's fascinating account have earned my highest respect.
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