Monday, July 21, 2008

#17: The Tulip and the Pope

50 BOOK CHALLENGE 2008 #17: The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story
AUTHOR: Deborah Larsen
YEAR: (2005, Knopf, hardcover)
GENRE: memoir
PAGES: 256

The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story The Tulip and the Pope: A Nun's Story by Deborah Larsen

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book had a lot of unexplored potential. To be fair, I think writing a memoir about one's time as a nun (after the fact) must be a very difficult task. Karen Armstrong expresses this in her preface to The Spiral Staircase, her account of leaving her convent and a sequel to her memoir of her experiences as a nun (Through the Narrow Gate). Armstrong says:

Writing Through the Narrow Gate, some twelve years later, was a salutary experience. It made me confront the past, and I learned a great dal. Most important, I realized how precious and formative this period of my life had been, and that despite my problems, I would not have missed it for the world. Then I attempted a sequel: Beginning the World was published in 1983. It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print. (xvii)

Deborah Larsen's account of entering the convent of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1960 is a conflicted memoir--not in her feelings about her time as a nun, but in her choice of narrative voice. She has tried to accomplish in one memoir what Armstrong struggled to do in three. She explains in her author's note: " My remembrance of 1960-1965 never felt like a conventional narrative, thought it had progressions. My sense was more of a string of paper lanterns...lit spottily against the dark along a dock, where some days, even now, waves dash." This explains, but does not ameliorate the odd sense of detachment for the reader.

A lot of value in memoir is hindsight. Larsen's reluctance to allow herself deeper reflection upon the events of the 60s left this reader disappointed. It isn't until Larsen considers leaving the convent that the narrative becomes potentially more interesting. Not only has she been released to re-engage with the world in the memoir, but it seems that Larsen-as-author releases her cloistered style as well and the reader begins to understand the point of the first two-thirds of the book:

If you are capable of pushing, then a you is assumed; you must exist if you can push.

Maybe that was it.

There must be an identity or at least an entity; there must be a you.

Or was it the
act of pushing, your choosing, your summoning up courage, created the you? (205)

I'm not sure Larsen's switch in style was conscious, but it makes for a disparate reading experience with the first part of the book.

What Larsen does accomplish however, is a beautiful set of vignettes from both inside and outside the community. She appreciates the nuns' aesthetic sense: "Black became us almost thrillingly, I thought. Clerical, but classy." Moments like this make the reader smile as she recognizes the nineteen year old in the nun.

For some, this memoir will feel remarkably undramatic--Larsen moves from a state of naive obedience to disciplined questioning. However, it is this lack of drama that gives the book a good part of its value. Larsen has demystified the choice to enter a convent, and reveals obedience, chastity, and poverty to be simply another set of options in the lives we choose to lead.

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