Mortal Sin is one of the best books I’ve read in 2004. However, I know as I write this that not everyone will like it as much as I did. Containing a myriad of hot-button issues such as the state of the Catholic church, a priest hero undergoing a crisis of self, teen runaways, porn shops, a heroine who has been married and divorced three times by the age of 35 – this book is not a light, while-away-the-hours kind of read. But if you don’t mind frank discussions of the above issues and like fast-paced, occasionally provocative writing peopled with interesting characters, Mortal Sin will satisfy you, and then some. It’s a page-turner that will make you think, feel, and end with you wanting more.
Sarah Connolly is a transplanted Southern belle who inherits a home in a Boston suburb and moves herself and her 15-year-old niece Kit there to start a new life. Kit lives with Sarah by default – since her father’s new wife can’t stand her, he accepted his sister’s offer to take in Kit. The young girl isn’t happy about the move, doesn’t appreciate her aunt’s tough love approach to her teenage angst, and hates Boston. More than anything, Kit wants to run away to become an actress. So one raw March night, run away is just what Kit does, leaving behind a terrified and anxious aunt determined to find her.
Taking the advice of an employee, Sarah contacts Father Clancy Donovan, a Catholic priest for a poor inner-city Boston parish. Clancy spends his evenings prowling the streets of Boston’s seamier side, coaxing young prostitutes off the street and into the halfway house he’s established. It’s likely he can help Sarah, given that he knows the mean streets and many of the people on them. Despite his very busy schedule and current personal misgivings about his own path, Clancy agrees to help Sarah find her niece. Their journey begins simply with an agreement to work together to locate a missing teen, and becomes something much larger and more complicated as the months pass and their search for Kit continues. They begin as strangers, become friends, and struggle individually as their feelings independently and innocently turn to more.
Father Clancy Donovan is an intriguing character. A reformed bad boy from the streets of Boston and a former Merchant Marine, he has a worldliness that belies his humble vocation and a certain flexibility of thought that often crashes against the rigid structure of the church he serves. His dedication to God and his flock are absolute and all-consuming, and yet Breton shows us that for Clancy they begin to feel hollow even before he meets Sarah. His crisis of faith – or perhaps crisis of self is a better term, because his faith in God is never in question – is palpable and genuine. His anguish is utterly believable as he comes to terms with his impure thoughts and the risk of mortal sin falling in love with Sarah brings. He agonizes at having to choose between the life he believes he was called to and the woman who represents everything he believes he doesn’t deserve and can’t have.
Sarah takes more time to fully develop as a character, and she never feels as fully fleshed out as Clancy, but in many ways that makes sense because Mortal Sin is very much the latter’s story. But despite my initial misgivings about her (three divorces by age 35?), I grew to like and appreciate Sarah’s no-nonsense, yet, nevertheless, warm style. I grieved the loss of her niece with her, and admired the way she didn’t give up hope, even as every thin trail seemed to dissipate into the air. I appreciated the slow, wary development of the relationship between Sarah and Clancy, awkward and fraught with unspoken tension as it sometimes was. Unlike some of the women in his flock who throw themselves at the handsome young priest, Sarah at no time encourages or prods Clancy into a relationship with her. In fact, she resists the very idea and risks her own heartbreak rather than cause him grief. For that alone, she won my admiration. In so many novels, the heroines act like whiny adolescents and it’s a joy when I come across one who is mature and shows it as Sarah does. She’s made mistakes, yes. She’s not perfect. But she tries to do the right thing and doesn’t judge others for their choices.
The reader is privy to Kit’s experiences as a runaway parallel with Sarah and Clancy’s relationship, giving the reader the opportunity to experience both sides of the action as the novel unfolds. The writing throughout is enjoyable, even when the subject matter is not particularly pleasant. Breton doesn’t shy away from showing the seamier side of the life into which Kit falls. The teen is an easy character to sympathize with, especially considering the back story created for her.
The resolution in Mortal Sin was satisfying to me, even more so because it’s never quite a sure thing. I honestly wasn’t positive until close to the end how everything would turn out for everyone involved. But despite the author’s success in keeping the suspense alive with the major plotline, my biggest quibble with Mortal Sin is that other, smaller elements of the plotline and characterizations are predictable. As soon as one character was introduced, I could guess the part he would play several hundred pages later. The villains were fairly obvious and without the subtlety of the main characters. Maybe it’s nitpicking, but their cartoon quality and predictability subtracted some of my enjoyment from the book.
But considering the book as a whole, these are minor issues indeed, and setting them aside wasn’t hard. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent reading Mortal Sin. It was a book that made me think, cry, smile, and lose a few hours of time in the blink of an eye. I almost missed my train stop because I was nearing the end and didn’t want to put the book away until I knew what had happened. That’s when you know a book is working for you. Mortal Sin may not please everyone, but it certainly pleased me.