David Gutersons Our Lady of the Forest opens with a solitary girl wandering deep into the misty, moss-carpeted woods of Washington state to pick chanterelle mushrooms. The lush and silent setting makes you anticipate a mystery or enchantment waiting there among the alders, and Ann Holmes, a young runaway, finds both when her mushroom picking is suddenly interrupted by the first of several visits from the Virgin Mary.
News of the Marian encounters spreads quickly, courtesy of gossip and Internet chat rooms, and soon people from all over the country descend on the depressed logging town of North Fork. Ann is catapulted into unwilling celebrity, becoming "the visionary," the skinny, asthmatic pivot around which North Forks dramas shift and turn.
Guterson sidesteps the issue of whether Anns sightings are real, feverish hallucinations, or drug-induced flashbacks. He focuses, instead, on how this supposed miracle affects the people around her. She fires the imagination of Father Collins, the towns sensitive New Age priest. He lives in a trailer reading J.P. Donleavy, struggling with his inappropriate desire for the young visionary, as well as with his own faith, and wondering how to help his community with its sorrows and crises.
Situating herself as Anns "disciple," cynical and savvy Carolyn Greer, another mushroomer, jumps at the chance to churn religion into profit. While she dreams of scamming enough money to escape rain-soaked North Fork to winter in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Carolyn obsesses about her weight and envies Anns androgynous allure.
The most compelling figure in the novel is Tom Cross, a hard-bitten ex-logger whose boiling frustration caused the accident that left his son a quadriplegic. Tom inhabits his bitterness with a vengeance. The question of whether or not he can find redemption, as well as his clumsy stumbling from mishap to angry exchange to empty sex back to mishap, spark some life into a novel that starts to drag.
Guterson is tackling heavy themesfaith vs. delusion, religion vs. true belief, and the possibility of forgiveness and healing. Unfortunately, as quickly as the Mary-hungry crowds show up in town, the story bogs down and calcifies under the weight of its big ideas, and most of the characters arent engaging enough to pull us through this relentlessly downbeat situation of mildew-spotted, small-town claustrophobia.
Carolyn, in particular, seems one-dimensional, and her relationship with Ann isnt convincing. Despite some funny observationsthe crowds desperate to see the visionary are "a horde of charismatic Catholics with walkie-talkies and a phone tree"too many of her speeches are studied diatribes that have no place shoehorned into dialogue:
"Suddenly youre the rage, Ann. Youre Madonna or somebody, bigger than Madonna because she cant sing whereas you, youre a diva in your Mother Mary way, not just more cheap porno dance moves and deceiving camera angles. Youre an all-American cult-leader, a channeler like whats-her-name who speaks for dead Egyptians, or like that guy who waited for Hale-Bopp, the mass suicide eunuch.... I gotta say I love whats going on here. Its completely Dada spectacle. Its Hieronymus Bosch on Budweiser."
Guterson also includes a wealth of detail about religious life and Marianist culture. But a story that deals so directly with the fabric of faith and religion should be more careful to avoid getting weighed down by these details.
The novels lyrical prose and descriptions are its strong points. Guterson conjures up a forest setting that manages to be both stark and dense. When Ann forages for mushrooms, the writing quietly sings: "Rising, she found chanterelles buried in the interstices of liverworts and in the shadows of windfalls. She cut them low, brushed them clean and set them carefully in her bucket. For a long time she picked steadily...pleased because it was a rainless day on which she was finding enough mushrooms to justify being there. They drew her on like a spell."
Unfortunately, after its promising opening pages, Our Lady of the Forest fails to cast any spell. North Forks destiny, Anns fate, and the question of what she has actually witnessed are anything but holy mysteries. By the end, its hard to muster up enough interest to care either way.
Andrea Jeyaveeran works for the literary organization PEN American Center. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.