Then Came Heaven
I’ve been on a LaVyrle Spencer reading kick recently. I was in the mood for something quiet, emotional and deeply immersive, and Spencer’s books nearly always deliver in that regard. Her last published novel, Then Came Heaven, was an interesting read in many ways, but didn’t have the romantic depth of her previous work.
In the small town of Browerville, Minnesota, everyone knows Eddie and Krystyna Olczak. He’s the janitor and handyman at the local Catholic church, and she’s a devoted wife and mother as well as being a mainstay of the community. But when Krystyna is killed in an accident, Eddie struggles to hold it together for the sake of their two little girls. He has a large family doing their best to help, but sometimes that’s just not enough.
The girls’ teacher, Sister Regina, is just as shocked when she hears about the accident, and she even wonders why God would take a woman like Krystyna away from her children. But Sister Regina knows it’s a sin to ask such a question. It’s also a sin to offer comfort by way of a touch or an embrace. The youngest nun in the convent, Sister Regina sometimes chafes silently against some of the restrictions placed on her by her order, and on top of that she finds herself feeling more for Eddie than she should. Meanwhile, Eddie is grateful to her for her support as his daughters’ teacher, a kind and steady constant in their upended lives, but he soon has to remind himself that she’s a nun, and therefore he should be keeping his distance as much as possible.
My favorite part of this story, bar none, is Sister Regina’s daily life as a nun, her gradual disillusionment, and her journey towards a life outside the convent; Spencer describes Catholic ceremonies so vividly that I could smell the incense. I also like the balanced approach here. Even as Sister Regina notices those practices of the Benedictine Order which need change, she acknowledges that the Order has a great deal to offer people for whom that life is the right one. The religious characters in this book feel like real people, not plaster saints or evil sinners.
It’s also sad but believable that Regina’s grandmother convinced her to become a nun – when Regina was just eleven. Before she could even attend high school, let alone go on a date, she was expected to give up any chance of a husband and children of her own. I could have read an entire book about Regina discovering what she needs, as opposed to what her family expects from her.
The other thing I enjoyed was the richly depicted background of Browerville, which has all the ups and downs of small-town life. And Krystyna’s daughters are realistic children who ask questions like, “Do nuns have to brush their teeth?”, not plot moppets who fixate on Regina as their new mother.
So what doesn’t work? Mostly, the romance. Regina is so restricted that she can’t even have an open conversation with Eddie until she gets dispensation from the Pope to renounce her vows. At one point, he says that he always feels better after talking to her, but she’s not allowed to do more than nod, listen and make replies that don’t reveal anything too personal.
On top of that, Regina doesn’t leave the Order until late into the book, so the romance feels rushed. Within a few months of his wife’s death, Eddie is moving on, and since the only conflict between him and Regina is her being a nun, once that’s out of the way, it’s smooth sailing. Also, when Regina leaves the Order, she doesn’t want to depend on her parents for the rest of her life, so she looks into going to university to study child psychology. But after Eddie meets her again, all she thinks about are marriage and babies. I’m fine with a woman wanting to be a wife and a mother, but I’m not sure why a plan to get an education is mentioned if that plan is immediately forgotten when a man shows up.
Finally, there’s one scene which potential readers might want to know about in advance. When Eddie finds out Regina is planning to leave the Order, he takes her to a private room to ask how long the process will last. Barred from disclosing this, she tries to leave. So he physically blocks her, then grabs her arms. She says he’s not supposed to touch her, says he’s hurting her, struggles against him, and prays aloud. Finally she breaks down and answers him, at which point she’s allowed to leave, wiping away tears. The book is set in 1950 and was published in 1997, but still, the scene made me very uncomfortable, especially since I wasn’t caught up in the romance to begin with. Eddie apologizes later, but it’s easy to say sorry once you’ve got what you want. So I wasn’t feeling the meaningfulness of the apology either.
Despite that, there’s a lot to enjoy in Then Came Heaven. LaVyrle Spencer’s love for her hometown of Browerville shines through, and the people of that town are completely authentic. Plus, Regina’s step-by-step transition into a secular life is something you don’t read every day; just the special dispensation from Rome makes it clear this isn’t a story where the Mother Superior will cheer Regina on while singing “Climb Every Mountain”. This book may not be Morning Glory, but it gets a qualified recommendation for readers who have loved Spencer’s other novels, and want to see some of her talent in her final story.
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I'm Marian, originally from Sri Lanka but grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in Georgia and Texas, ended up in Toronto. When I'm not at my job as a medical laboratory technologist, I read, write, do calligraphy, and grow vegetables in the back yard.