Saturday, November 19, 2005
Review: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor
The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor
1962, Loyola Press (Loyola Classics Series), 640 pages, softcover, Catholic
available at general booksellers or online at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, etc
At first glance, Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor is a walk down memory lane. A memory of the American Catholic church before Vatican II, before the priest scandals. A lovely, nostalgic read.
But the thing that makes this book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1962 is the fact that O’Connor’s story is truly ageless. The characters are drawn from humanity, painted with the author’s word-brush so lovingly and carefully that by the end of the book you know each of these folks intimately. And, you like them, in spite of their less-than-virtuous actions.
The story centers around a native Bostonian priest, Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic who guides us through the joys and troubles of his life in late 1950s Irish Catholic Boston. Seeing all through the eyes of this humble pastor, the reader is introduced to a wealth of characters: self-made first-generation Irish folks, political hopefuls, fellow priests and “outsiders” such as his Polish curate and a non-Irish, non-Bostonian bishop. The prejudices unveiled are humanely drawn; there's something redeeming in every character, something that Father Hugh finds regardless of their overt actions. Through the book winds a thread of Father Hugh’s own self-examination, a thread that is tested and strengthened by every encounter; encounters which lead Father Hugh just to the brink of despair, to the edge of sadness. But, grace pulls him back from the brink each time.
This book, although a hefty 600-plus pages, grips the reader from the first page. It reads quickly and elegantly as the humor and pathos of Catholic American life transcends the era and location in which the story is set. This book is a great read because it shows how American Catholicism was and how it can still be; how the Church is run by humans (who sometimes make mistakes) trying to minister to humans (who sometimes make mistakes) – all with God’s grace and beneficence helping us through.
Loyola Classics has added ten provocative questions to the end of the book for the edification of the reader or to facilitate discussion within a book club. These would make for a wonderful “study guide” if used with a teen reading club or individual book study.
Reviewed by Mary C. Gildersleeve