It is long-awaited book club day! :)
(If you have written your own response on your blog, leave the address in the comments and I'll post it.)
I love this book (well, no surprise, since I picked it!). It speaks to me on a variety of levels, first being it's a good story about a group of people you wouldn't normally thing to write a story about--cloistered nuns. The novel vividly illustrates the fact that even though they're nuns, they are still human, with all our faults, failings, and petty jealousies that go along with that. The characters of Mother Hester, Dame Veronica, and Sister Julian bring out these qualities in all of the sisters; they are touchstones, so to speak, of their humanity. While everyone loved Mother Hester, she made mistakes. Dame Veronica just aggravates me to no end (I share that with Dame Agnes!).
Sister Cecily is my favorite character. I just adored her--first for her single-minded commitment to God, and, of course, her music. But her evolution as a character is so strong. She goes from her desperate entrance (her desire is to "come in") to the mature Dame we see at the end of the novel. She has realized what she is giving up by being a nun--husband, family, all those things she thought she didn't want, or were secondary to her calling. She finds, instead, that a vocation--any vocation--requires sacrifice.
I do like Phillipa, our protagonist. Her background is a lot like mine (although my job doesn't require nearly the amount of responsibility hers does!). As I was re-reading the novel in preparation for our discussion over Thanksgiving, it was her journey, and her (eventual) openness to whatever she was called to do, that lead me to re-consider my own vocation and begin the inquiry process into becoming a sister (which has led to a vocational retreat next month). She is "of the world" in the beginning. She has known great loss and has closed off part of herself. By the end of the novel, she is open to God's call, even submissive to it, as she never thought she could be. She lives more deeply.
The novel is rich in wonderful incidents and episodes; it's one of those books that could've gone on forever, in a sense. What happened to Phillipa and the Japanese postulants? (Anyone want to write a sequel? :)) Did they ever get back to Brede? The novel carries you along with its wonderful writing and characterizations. Even though there are many characters, Rumer Gooding brings each of them to life, so that you feel you know them and could go talk to them at Brede today.
I also enjoyed the nuns' solidarity with one another, and I think that's portrayed the best in the episode where Phillipa asks the nuns to pray for Penny. The author notes that Dames Maura and Agnes, who are rivals, are in the chapel at the same time, praying for the same thing, together. No matter what the nuns' personal differences (and there are many), they join around the common causes--prayer, life in Christ, and devotion to His church. It is an excellent lesson for all of us.