There are many different kinds of love. And love means many different things to different people. In Jamie Quatro’s novel, Fire Sermon, she explores ideas of faith, passion, sex, and loyalty in a melancholy but beautiful slowburn of a novel.
Maggie is essentially happily married to Thomas, with two children she loves, and a profound and intellectual faith in God. However when she starts writing to a poet she admires, James, she finds the potential for a connection that surpasses the safety, security and familiarity that Thomas offers. It’s not a spoiler to say that they end up spending a night together as this is alluded to very early on, and the tension of the novel does not revolve around whether they will, but how Maggie will react and what she will choose to do when everything she thought she knew is shaken.
The book alternates between a third person narrator, Maggie’s voice, the voice of her (assumed) therapist and the letters and emails that Maggie and James exchange, tracing Maggie’s life, marriage and her ongoing search for meaning.The chapters are short and charged, and you’ll find yourself racing through the book. Despite the distinct lack of twists and turns, or even much plot beyond the above, this story feels at times like a thriller as Quatro suffuses it with the fierce tension Maggie feels between loyalty and passion. The writing is sharp and smart, perfectly balancing obsession and darkness with moments of hope and warmth; it’s largely unlike anything I’ve ever read although I was reminded at times of Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation in its examination of relationships and love and its unusual structure.
The book consistently resists an easy narrative; no choice is painted as clear cut. Quatro teases out every ounce of heartache, beauty and desire with a laser fine eye free of judgment. Steadfast, companionable love is not derided at the expense of passion and desire, and neither is adultery and illicit love condemned in the face of promises made. Having said that, this is a fiercely erotically charged book. It may not have much explicit sex in it, but it has some incredibly sexy moments nonetheless, focused on capturing that overwhelming, desperate sense of desire rather than describing in anatomical detail what happens afterwards. You as the reader are asked, as much as Maggie is, to decide what you think the right thing is. And whether the right thing is what she should do.
The other type of love that’s examined is love of God, something you don’t see in contemporary fiction often. Often religious characters are caricatured baddies, or maniacs, and it’s fascinating and refreshing to see intelligent, rational characters grappling with their ideas of faith and religion. Just as with Maggie’s relationship, at no point does Quatro point her reader one direction or the other, but leaves you with plenty to think about, as the best books do. Maggie’s uncertainty at what her faith requires of her, and what love requires of her, and whether the two are compatible makes for a more gripping moral dilemma than most thrillers.
This is a book that gets under your skin from the very first page, and will not let go of you until you’ve finished, and likely not for a while after that either. It resists comparisons, and easy interpretations and is all the richer for it.