Ever since Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds readers have had a love/hate relationship with what has been referred to as “priest porn”, women falling in love with the handsome, dashing priest they just can't stop thinking about. It is a subject I wrote about in my own Each Angel Burns. There is nothing quite so tantalizing and evocative as the allure of the forbidden. Especially when the forbidden is masculine, vulnerable, and good to his dog. Such is the core of Glass Halo by Colleen Smith.
The book is a delicious read. Ms. Smith’s prose are luscious, tantalizing, gorgeously crafted. Her knowledge of the art of stained glass making and the mystical role of light in evoking emotion make the story of Nora, a stained-glass artist, all the more lovely to read. The writing in this book is absolutely enchanting and it alone weaves a spell. The few passages written from the perspective of Father “Vin” DeMarco are touchingly sweet blending his all-consuming Faith with his frustration over his growing attraction to Nora
The story, in brief, is this. Nora was raised in a family of stained-glass artists and learned her craft well and from an early age. She has been through a damaging marriage and is recovering from an accident in which she was severely injured and her husband killed. Now, living alone and on disability, she is out wandering one day when a tornado is bearing down and she is rescued by a man who pulls her into a lovely old cathedral. They hide from the tornado in the basement and only resurface when danger is past to discover that the windows of the church have been terribly damaged and her rescuer, who happens to be the pastor of the church, persuades her to come out of her seclusion and repair the windows.
The chapters of the book are structured through the seasons of the Catholic year with each chapter being written on feast days of particular saints or liturgical holy days. As the year and the work on the windows progresses, Nora is becoming increasingly obsessed with Father DeMarco and he is most certainly charmed by her. The priest we soon discover is man of deep Faith but he also has an excessive fondness for alcohol and, when he has had a few, uses very poor judgment in the appropriateness of his behavior for Nora. Nora's landlady, Father DeMarco's housekeeper, and many of the parishioners see what is going on and disapprove. In an era in which Catholic priests are struggling to regain credibility and respect because of the misconduct of a few, Father DeMarco is taking very questionable chances and they all know it.
I'm going to be honest here and say that, though I loved the writing and the knowledge of subject matter, and the incredible sensitivity to the plight of two people falling in love, the thing I never got in this book was why Father DeMarco was so attracted to Nora, other than the fact that she was cute and he was drunk. That is a good enough reason for picking up someone in a bar but the half-year's worth of obsession was hard for me to believe. I know that Nora was supposed to be depressed and damaged from an abusive relationship but to me she just seemed sulky and self-absorbed. Through the better part of the middle of the book Nora spends every day working on her stained glass windows (fascinating) and obsessing about whether she will see the priest today (tedious). For his part, Father DeMarco engages in the come-here/go-away so typical of the “dance-away” lover. He avoids her but then has a few drinks and can't help himself, to the point where I, as a reader, began thinking “just do it and get it over with!”
Make no mistake, this is a beautifully written and researched book. I enjoyed reading it for the most part but the story at the core began annoying me about halfway through the book. The final chapters discuss some fascinating and worthwhile ideas on the nature of priesthood and what celibacy is all about. I liked Father DeMarco and felt sorry for the conflict he was experiencing, much of it alcohol induced, but frequently felt like reminding him to avoid what we, in Catholic school, were warned of as “near occasions of sin”. And I wanted to like Nora. She was a talented artist with a genuine gift but her self-absorption became tedious. As the climax approaches and she suddenly grows a conscience, all I could think was “oh, yeah, now you get it.”
This is a lovely book with a brilliant (literally) introduction into the craft of the glazier. It leaves the reader with much to consider and it will linger in the mind. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to most readers who would perhaps find Nora more sympathetic than I did. I'm looking forward to Ms. Smith's next work.