By Maria Browning
Any Bitter Thing (Chronicle Books, 345 pp.), Monica Wood’s latest novel set in her native New England, begins with a subject that is simultaneously lurid and clichéd—sexual abuse of children by priests—and spins from it an unexpected story about the beauty of human devotion. The protagonist, Lizzy Mitchell, is struck by a car while fleeing a fight with her husband and has a near-death vision that plunges her back into memories of her troubled childhood. Orphaned at age 2, she was placed in the care of her adored uncle Mike, a Catholic priest, who was later falsely accused of molesting her. Her struggle to understand the meaning of her vision leads her to discover the truth about her uncle, who was not the entirely innocent victim she imagined.
Readers of Wood’s previous novel, My Only Story (Chronicle Books, 2000), will find that many of the same themes echo through this new book. Both stories center on a parentless child and the inevitable conflicts that arise within and around her. To whom does she belong? Who owes her a home, and who has a right to a place in her life? Wood has a reverence for the profound human connection created within families. When that connection is disrupted by death, violence or deception, it knocks something askew in the universe. Her characters have to muddle through pain and uncertainty toward the wisdom that can set things right, motivated, in Lizzy’s words, by “the human animal’s insistence on stitching one life to another’s with the flimsiest of thread.”
Any Bitter Thing’s title is taken from Proverbs (“…to the hungry soul, any bitter thing tastes sweet”), and the structure of the book follows the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. Though the characters have little direct discourse with religion—in fact, they seem barely on speaking terms with the faith most of them share—Wood makes it clear that their collective struggle to find reconciliation is ultimately a spiritual task, and that acknowledging small truths can reveal much larger ones.
Monica Wood will read from her work on Nov. 8 at 8 p.m., at Austin Peay’s Gentry Auditorium. A reception and book signing will follow. An informal discussion will be held Nov. 9 at 11:15 a.m. in Harned Hall 240. All events are free and open to the public.