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Faith: A Novel
by Jennifer Haigh

Published: 2011-05-10
Hardcover : 336 pages
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It is the spring of 2002 and a perfect storm has hit Boston. Across the city's archdiocese, trusted priests have been accused of the worst possible betrayal of the souls in their care. In Faith, Jennifer Haigh explores the fallout for one devout family, the McGanns.

Estranged for years ...

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It is the spring of 2002 and a perfect storm has hit Boston. Across the city's archdiocese, trusted priests have been accused of the worst possible betrayal of the souls in their care. In Faith, Jennifer Haigh explores the fallout for one devout family, the McGanns.

Estranged for years from her difficult and demanding relatives, Sheila McGann has remained close to her older brother Art, the popular, dynamic pastor of a large suburban parish. When Art finds himself at the center of the maelstrom, Sheila returns to Boston, ready to fight for him and his reputation. What she discovers is more complicated than she imagined. Her strict, lace-curtain-Irish mother is living in a state of angry denial. Sheila's younger brother Mike, to her horror, has already convicted his brother in his heart. But most disturbing of all is Art himself, who persistently dodges Sheila's questions and refuses to defend himself.

As the scandal forces long-buried secrets to surface, Faith explores the corrosive consequences of one family's history of silence?and the resilience its members ultimately find in forgiveness. Throughout, Haigh demonstrates how the truth can shatter our deepest beliefs--and restore them. A gripping, suspenseful tale of one woman's quest for the truth, Faith is a haunting meditation on loyalty and family, doubt and belief. Elegantly crafted, sharply observed, this is Jennifer Haigh's most ambitious novel to date.

A Q&A with Author Jennifer Haigh

Q: What was your inspiration for writing Faith?

Haigh: When I moved to Boston from Iowa in 2002, the city was reeling from revelations that Catholic priests had molested children, and that the Archdiocese had covered up the abuse. I was reeling too: I was raised in a Catholic family, spent twelve years in parochial schools and had extremely fond memories of my interactions with Catholic clergy. It's no exaggeration to say that nuns and priests were the heroes of my childhood. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened in Boston--and, as later became clear, in Catholic dioceses across the country. Faith was my attempt to explain the inexplicable, to understand what I couldn?t make sense of in any other way.

Q: Exploring the interplay between parents and children and among siblings is a delicate art that is not easily mastered, even for seasoned writers. How do you, as a storyteller, work to keep your story emotionally evocative?pulling the reader in with a depth of feeling?without falling into melodrama or treacle?

Haigh: I don?t try to make the reader feel any particular way. I just try to be accurate, to show people as they are.

Q: Faith is told from the point of view of Art's sister, Sheila. It's a surprising choice, since she doesn?t actually witness the events in question. Why did you approach the story in this way?

Haigh: It took me a while to figure out how to tell this story. When I read account of priests who?d been accused of sexual abuse, I was struck by the difficulty of getting to the bottom of such cases. Often it comes down to one person's word against another: only two people know for sure what happened, and sometimes the child is too traumatized to remember it clearly. As Sheila tells the story, she's struggling to arrive at the truth, to find out whether her brother could possibly have done the things he's accused of, to imagine what he thought and felt, to get inside his head. In a sense, it mirrors the way all novels are written. To me, writing is an exercise in empathy.

Q: Over the course of four novels, you?ve broadened your skills and honed your narrative dexterity, from the exquisite character sketches of Mrs. Kimble, to broader questions of family, religion, and society in the rich, multi-layered family drama that is Faith. What are you working on next?

Haigh: My current project is a collection of short stories set in Bakerton, the Pennsylvania coal town where my second novel, Baker Towers, took place.

Q: What inspires you as a writer?and as a reader? Who has influenced your writing and who you are as a person?

Haigh: Like all writers, I am a reader first. When my work is going well, I read. When it's going badly, I read more. Faulkner, William Styron, James Salter, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Richard Yates, JM Coetzee: these are writers whose books remind me what's possible, why I wanted to write novels in the first place.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


“Luminous. . . . The novel has the magnetic, page-turning quality of a detective thriller, but the clues here lead not to objective proof but to insight into a family both vividly specific and astonishingly universal. . . . . Wise.”— O magazine

Here is a story my mother has never told me.

It is a day she’s relived a thousand times, the twenty-first of June, 1951, the longest day of that or any year. A day that still hasn’t ended, as some part of her still paces that dark apartment in Jamaica Plain, waiting. I imagine the curtains closed against the five o’clock sun, hot and bright as midday; her baby boy peacefully asleep; her young self with nothing to do but wander from room to room, still filled with her dead mother-in-law’s things.

At the time she’d thought it a grand apartment, her from Roxbury where the children slept three to a bed. Even as a boy her husband had had his own bedroom, an unimaginable luxury. His mother had been injured somehow giving birth and there had been no more children. This fact alone made the Breens wealthier than most, though Harry’s father had only worked at Filene’s stacking crates in the warehouse. The entire apartment had come from Filene’s, on the employee discount, the lamps and brocade divan and what she had learned were called Oriental rugs. Mary herself had never bought a thing at Filene’s. Her own mother shopped at Sears.

In the bedroom the baby slept deeply. She parted the curtains and let the sun shine on his face. Harry, when he came home, would pull them shut, worried someone might see him dressing or undressing through their third-floor windows. Sure, it was possible—the windows faced Pond Street, also lined with threedeckers—though why he cared was a puzzle. He was a man, after all. And there was nothing wrong with the sight of him. The first morning of their marriage, lying in the too-soft bed in the tourist cabin in Wellfleet, she had looked up at him in wonderment, her first time seeing him in daylight, his bare chest and shoulders, and her already four months along. Nothing wrong with him at all, her husband tall and blue-eyed, with shiny dark hair that fell into his eyes when he ducked his head, a habit left over from a bashful adolescence, though nobody, now, would call him shy. Harry Breen could talk to anyone. Behind the counter at Old Colony Hardware he had a way with the customers, got them going about their clogged pipes and screen doors and cabinets they were installing. He complimented their plans, suggested small improvements, sent them out the door with twice what they’d come in for. A natural salesman, never mind that he couldn’t, himself, hit a nail with a hammer. When a fuse blew at the apartment it was Mary who ventured into the dark basement with a flashlight.

What did you do before? she’d asked, half astonished, when she returned to the lit apartment and found Harry and his mother sitting placidly in the kitchen, stirring sugar into teacups.

We didn’t burn so many lights before, the old lady said.

It was a reminder among many others that Mary’s presence was unwelcome, that Mrs. Breen, at least, had not invited her into their lives, this grimy interloper with her swollen belly and her skirts and blouses from Sears. As though her condition were a

mystery on the order of the Virgin Birth, as though Harry Breen had had nothing to do with it.

She lifted Arthur from his crib and gave his bottom a pat. He wriggled, squealed, fumbled blindly for her breast. The sodden diaper would have to be changed, the baby fed. In this way minutes would pass, and finally an hour. The stubborn sun would begin its grudging descent. Across town, in Roxbury, girls would be dressing for the dances, Clare Boyle and her sister and whoever else they ran with now, setting out by twos and threes down the hill to Dudley Street.

She finished with the diaper, then sat at the window and unbuttoned her blouse, aware of the open curtains. If Harry came upon her like this, her swollen breast exposed, what would he do then? The thought was thrilling in a way she couldn’t have explained. But it was after six, and still there was no sign of him. When his mother was alive he’d come straight home after work. You could set your watch by it, his footsteps on the stairs at fivethirty exactly, even on Fridays when the other men stopped at the pub for a taste. Lately, though, his habits had shifted. Mondays and Tuesdays he played cards at the Vets.

Once, leaving church, he’d nodded to some men she didn’t recognize, a short one and a tall one sharing a cigarette on the sidewalk. See you tomorrow, then, Harry called in a friendly tone. The short man had muttered under his breath, and the tall one had guffawed loudly. To Mary it couldn’t have been plainer that they were not Harry’s friends.

They’d met the way everyone met, at the dances. Last summer the Intercolonial was the place to be; now it might be the Hibernian or the Winslow or the Rose Croix for all she knew. On a Saturday night, with Johnny Powell’s band playing, a thousand or more would crowd upstairs at the Intercolonial, a mirrored globe hanging from the ceiling so that the walls shivered with light.

She was seventeen then, too young for such pleasures. But it had been easy enough to slip out on a Friday night with Ma dead asleep, exhausted by the work of getting three small ones bathed and in their beds. And it wasn’t even a lie to go dancing on a Wednesday, when Mary really did attend the novena at nine o’clock as she was supposed to, the church packed with other overdressed girls and men who’d already had a drink or two, who’d meet up later across the street at Fontaine’s Café and make their plans for the evening. All right, then. See you at the hall. The men were deep on Wednesdays; you could change partners all night long if you wanted. Thursdays were a different story, maids’ night out, the halls packed with Irish girls. There was almost no point in going on a Thursday, the numbers were so against you. On a Thursday you were lucky to get a single dance.

Harry Breen hadn’t chosen her, not at first. That first time they’d danced purely by chance. She knew all the dances—the reels and jigs, the wild céilí. At the Intercolonial waltzes were the thing, though once each night Johnny Powell would force the dreamy couples apart. Line up, everybody, for the Siege of Ennis. A mad crush, then, as they formed two long lines, men and girls facing. You’d take your turn with every one, herself and Clare Boyle laughing the whole way through. Some of the men were clumsy, some so strong they’d nearly swing you off your feet.

She noticed Harry a moment before he reached for her. He was taller than the rest, his movements liquid; he swung her gracefully, smooth and controlled. And that thing she first felt, that swooning joy: maybe it was simple geometry, the relative size and shape of their bodies, his chest and shoulders just where they should be, their hips meeting, her eyes level with his mouth.

The plain fact was that she’d chased him, courted his attention. Gone to greater lengths than any girl should. There was no point, now, in being ashamed. She had a ring on her finger and it hardly mattered how. They were married fast by her uncle Fergus, who’d skipped, discreetly, the time-consuming step of publishing the banns. Fergus had guessed what everyone would soon know, that Mary had gotten exactly what she wanted, and a bit more besides.

She looked down at the baby at her breast.

In the kitchen she took her beads from the drawer and found the station in time. Missing the Archbishop’s greeting was like coming late to a movie; she’d be unable to enter into the spirit of the thing. When Harry’s mother was living, they had knelt in the parlor for the rosary. Now the old lady was gone and no one was looking, so Mary dragged a chair to the open window and settled herself there. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Through the window a breeze came, carrying the Archbishop’s voice from the two apartments below. Up and down the street, every radio was tuned to the same station. Through every open window came the same holy words.

It being Thursday, they started with the Joyful. As a girl she had studied the illustrations in her mother’s missal. The Joyful Mysteries were the most straightforward, the pictures almost Protestant in their simplicity: the Blessed Virgin kneeling in prayer, waiting for the angel; the Virgin noticeably pregnant, embracing her cousin Elizabeth. The Sorrowful were haunting and in a way lovelier: Our Lord kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, glowing in His anguish, perspiring drops of blood. But it was the Glorious Mysteries she waited for, Our Lord lifted into heaven, clouds bubbling beneath His feet like a cauldron of spirits. The Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption of the Virgin: all these stirred her deeply, even though (or perhaps because) she understood them the least. That was the beauty of it: contemplating the miracles, sublime and unknowable, and yet the words you repeated couldn’t be simpler. Hail Mary, full of grace. A prayer you’d known since earliest childhood, familiar as your mother’s voice. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. For the epigraph, Jennifer Haigh uses two quotes, one involving sin, the other about living by the Rule. Explain what each quote refers to. How do these quotes reflect the novel’s themes?

2. What role does religion play in each of the family members’ lives? How do their religious beliefs—or lack of them—define who they are? Is religion a solace for the family or a burden? Are there sins or transgressions that are unforgivable?

3. How do you define faith? What does faith mean to each of the characters, especially the siblings, Art, Sheila, and Mike ? Is this a good title for the novel?

4. Describe the relationships between Sheila and her brothers. How do these siblings compare to each other? What defines their reaction to the scandal and to Art? What were their roles in Art’s story, and how did each of their outlooks and actions affect the other? How are each of the family members ultimately transformed by events?

5. Shelia remembers that as a child she saw her priest as “other than human, made of different stuff than the rest of us.” Explain what she means. Do you think that view still holds? How have societal views of priests—and other religious leaders—been affected by the abuse scandals? What role does the media play in shaping our views? What do the news stories leave out?

6. Many see doubt in negative terms. But can doubt strengthen our beliefs, our “faith”?

7. How would you describe Art? What did you think of him? Why did he become a priest?
8. Was he a good shepherd? Was he a good man? Did Art fail his faith or did faith fail him?

9. “Love to marriage to home and family: connect those dots, and you get the approximate shape of most people’s lives. Take them away, and you lose any hope for connection. You give up your place in the world.” Explain the meaning of Art’s words to Sheila. How does this reflect his own life? How does it reflect hers?

10. In sharing her brother’s past, Sheila reflects, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions.” What do the events of Art’s life reveal about the McGanns? What do they reveal about our own lives and modern society? What about the Catholic Church?

11. Shelia recalls that at the entrance of each building at the seminary where Art studied for the priesthood was carved the motto: Vigor in Arduis. “Strength Amid Difficulties.” Does this describe Art? What about Sheila and Mike? Would you consider those three words to be a good definition of faith?

12. Talk about Art’s relationship with Aidan Conlon and his mother, Kath. Why did Aidan affect Art so deeply? What about Kath? What were her feelings toward Art?

13. Talk about Mike’s relationship with Kath. How does it affect his impression of his brother? What is your opinion of Mike’s wife, Abby? As a non-Catholic what does she think of the McGanns, of their religious faith, and of Art?

14. Faith explores the dark and light of human nature: deception, belief, doubt, love, loyalty, compassion, anger, forgiveness., loneliness, the need for community, the desire for goodness. Choose one theme and trace it through the experiences of a character or two.

15. Do you think that faith—the adherence to conviction—is misunderstood in modern society? If the Church is a community of faith, what happens to the other when one begins to break down?

16. What did you take away from reading Faith?

About the author

JENNIFER HAIGH is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Condition; Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author; and Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her short stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications. She lives in the Boston area.

Suggested by Members

Try to keep the discussion about the book and not about the church.
by Scoop (see profile) 01/14/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


“Haigh deals with complex moral issues in subtle ways, and her narrative is beautifully, sometimes achingly poignant.”— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Haigh explores the intersections of public scandal and personal tragedy in her superb fourth novel. . . . At its broadest, this is a frank and timely story of familial and institutional heredity; at its most personal, the novel is a devastating portrait of a priest who discovers that he’s also a man.”— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With an exquisite sense of drama and mystery, Haigh delivers a taut, well-crafted tale that potently but subtly explores myriad gray areas within essential issues of truth and trust, punishment and absolution. Indelibly rendered characters, suspenseful pacing, and fearless but sensitive handling of a controversial subject will make this a must-read for book discussion groups."— Booklist (starred review)

“The narrative is emotionally involving and ethically concise, reminding us that things are not always as they seem and that we must consider carefully how we judge others. Most fiction readers will want.”— Library Journal

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by phoebe.terry (see profile) 02/02/16

  "The message is powerful!"by thewanderingjew (see profile) 06/12/14

I had not wanted to read this book, thinking it could not add to the narrative already out there about the scandal in the Church involving pedophile priests. Was I ever wrong! I was deeply a... (read more)

  "Faith"by slowcat (see profile) 03/08/12

thought the book was very good. Makes you really think about family and prejudging people.

  "Faith: A Novel"by mkrupiak (see profile) 03/06/12

This is definitely the best book I have read so far this year, and I read a lot. I am a Catholic. Grew up in a Catholic family, went to Catholic school, continue to observe the traditions and practice... (read more)

  "Faith is beautifully written in the first person and captures the reader from the very beginning."by Scoop (see profile) 01/14/12

Jennifer Haigh provides the voice for many family members involved in the "real life" scandal that plagued many churches. This story, while fictional, addressed the pain and heart ache that engulfed many... (read more)

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