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The Priest Fainted: A Novel Hardcover – March 15, 1998
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Catherine Temma Davidson's roots as a poet are immediately apparent in the lyrical prose style she adopts for her first novel, The Priest Fainted. Describing the lives of young girls in Greece, where the unnamed narrator has come for a year, Davidson writes: "Girls helping their mothers to prepare simple meals acquire an unspoken knowledge in their palms and fingers. If you come from these villages, you must find your history in your body." Larissa, the Greek village she visits, "sweats in the plains, dusty and sedentary. Like a promise, the peaks rise in the distance, garlanded in gorges and wild onions, goats and streams." This closely autobiographical novel follows the fortunes of a 21-year-old Greek-American woman as she returns to the land of her foremothers and reimagines their lives and her own in terms of classic Greek myths. Food, (the book's title is the name of a popular eggplant dish), mythology, religion, and feminism are just a few of the themes Davidson's heroine touches on in the course of her year in Greece as she caroms between the personal (her Greek relatives, an affair with a Greek-American basketball player) and the political: the circumscribed lives of women down through the years. By the end of the book, the narrator has realized that no individual life story exists in a vacuum; in order to understand ourselves, we must understand those who came before.
From Publishers Weekly
Imam baildi, a Greek dish whose name translates to "the priest fainted," is a delicacy both bitter and sweet?like this meditative debut from poet Davidson (Inheriting the Ocean) about a young Greek-American woman's journey to her ancestors' homeland. Framed by Greek myths (which open each chapter) and interwoven with tales of her mother's visit 30 years earlier, the story concerns the odyssey of an unnamed, 19-year-old narrator who travels to Athens and the small town of Larissa, unwittingly following in the footsteps of the mother she is trying, for the moment, to escape. Her own lively expatriate experiences?which include an obsession with a promiscuous Greek basketball player, a friendship with an impetuous American model, an Athenian newspaper job and a firsthand understanding of the conservative ethos surrounding Greek women?show the difficulty of being at once of a culture and foreign to it. As she slowly discovers more about her mother's life-altering decision not to marry a Greek man, she realizes that not all family resemblances are on the surface. Davidson's reworking of the myths sometimes feels familiar (yet another unremarkable interpretation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story) and she has a tendency to poeticize that detracts from the narrative's authentic charge. Nevertheless, her voice is agile and intelligent, and the novel ultimately proves to be a surprisingly resonant melange of wisdom and humor, a testimony to the strong bonds of family and cultural traditions.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
The author writes well, although after a while I found her attempts to interpret Greek myths through a filter of 21st century American feminism a little tiresome. In places the writing is poetic, but nothing that sets it apart from other such writing. The book reads like the author's journal, dressed up for public viewing. Instead of taking her material and using the creative process to form it into a seamless whole, she has chosen instead to present us with stories about her life, woven through with stories about her mother's and her grandmother's lives, and letting it all form its own whole.
There is an implication in the beginning of the book that some truth is going to be revealed by the time we reach the end -- that is, some question answered, or something explained. If that happened, I missed it. Hints of dark stories and revelations to come are dropped throughout the book, but nothing significant is ever revealed. I think her message is, possibly, that womens' potential is stifled by the patriarchy, but since that is not exactly a new concept, it is not the stuff of which revelations are made.
One small example of the author setting us up for something much more than she delivers is her chapter on spending the Easter holiday with her mother's relatives in their village in Greece. She says ominously, at the beginning of the chapter, "During Easter I felt I would encounter the core,.... travel to the origin. I did not realize ...I would have... a desire to get as far away from Greece as quickly as possible." You couldn't help wondering what was going to happen that would make her feel this way. As far as I could tell, it was basically that she didn't like the soup they served at the special meal the day before Easter, and she didn't have an appetite for roast lamb at the Easter picnic the next day. Davidson consistently comes off as a rather superficial and unsophisticated American girl.
If you want to learn a little about daily life in Greece, and something about how they celebrate their special holidays, you will get something out of this book. If you're looking for a novel, a complete world that the author has created for you to inhabit, you should look elsewhere. For a wealth of information about Greece told in a very readable way, read Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace. For a real novel about Greek people, read God's Snake, by Irini Spanidou.
I found Davidson's witty, insightful rendering of Greek mythology hilariously entertaining when read aloud, and read them again separately as they occasionally detracted from the narrative of the main story.
Davidson is right about food and cooking - for most Greek women their skills in the kitchen and the handing down of recipes through generations remain a source of pride and connected with identity.
My enjoyment of The Priest Fainted was distracted. Journalists have a duty of care to check their facts. e.g. Olympic Airways is called Olympic Airlines instead. The large avenue in central Athens, leading from near the ancient gates to the sea, is actually called Syngrou, not Syntagma. Syntagma is the Greek name for Constitution Square up the road, opposite the Parliament. You think this is pedantic? It's like me writing a book set in New York and referring to the Statue of Libertine. New Yorkers would quite rightly frog-march me to the airport!
I also believe Davidson is misinformed when she describes the Athens seaside suburb of Glyfada as a place where "few Greeks went". I lived in Glyfada for years, including the period Davidson was in Greece. The prominent presence of the American air force base at near-by Hellenikon, and expatriates and tourists gave Glyfada a more multi-cultural flavour than most of Athens, but Greeks still went there in sufficient numbers. I also find it questionable that someone who says their Greek is less than fluent, is suddenly able to fully understand the news bulletins on Greek television. These bulletins were often a subject of discussion among Greek-speaking foreigners, as the rapid-fire delivery and the formal speech was not easy to follow.
I really wanted to give this book a higher rating but I strongly feel my reservations are justified.
The way the author weaves the lives that were lived before her - her mother's and grandmother's and even a few mentions for her great-grandmother - all on the same journeys in their own lives, looking for their roots, searching for their own voices, was incredibly well-done. The way she leads into their different stories by way of the myths that have been told over the centuries - leaving me with the feeling that she knows how myths are born. That a myth was a simple story that was told over and over by so many daughters on their way through their own myth that it becomes legend. Nice touches.
This book didn't remind me at all of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING as I thought that it might. It brought to mind other stories of self-discovery - like SHIRLEY VALENTINE, or even MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA - where the author is matching her own reality, weighing it against the history, the future, the reality of her entire people and culture. Asking if she belongs, if she fits in, the author of PRIEST finds that she can.
I am giving this one 4 out of 5 shhhhhhtars.