Even So is more a spiritual novel than a religious one, by which I mean that it tackles themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, but there are no overt demands to turn to God, nor pray in a different way, nor even convert to a particular religion. I personally liked this approach — I grew up Catholic, and a lot of the language in the book resonated with me on a nostalgic level, as it reminded me of the guided meditations and silent retreats we did at school. And I was glad that the book stopped short of actually proselytizing, and was broader and more inclusive in its approach to its themes.
I will add the caveat that the way Davis treats the themes leaves much room for interpretation. The above is how the book struck me, but I can also very easily imagine other readers who will experience the book otherwise, and possibly read it as super religious in tone. I can also imagine readers — on both ends of the religiosity spectrum — who may dislike how this book chose to tackle its themes, and feel that it was either too heavy-handed or too subtle. My experience of the book is very much tied into my personal history, and my personal relationships with faith and spirituality, and I think your own experiences will colour how you end up viewing this novel.
Even So tells the story of two women: Angela Morrison, who is unhappily married to a wealthy older man, and wishing to rekindle passion in her life; and Sister Eileen, who runs the Our Daily Bread Food Pantry where Angela volunteers. Sister Eileen is dealing with a crisis of faith — she longs to deepen her relationship with God, yet is haunted by something she did when she was much younger that she fears is unforgivable. Angela — self-centred and snobby — is someone Sister Eileen automatically dislikes, and learning to love her regardless is part of her redemption. For her part, Angela’s passion is rekindled when she meets Carsten, the handsome gardener at Daily Bread, who is young, free, and basically everything her husband isn’t. Her decision to have an affair leads to her causing a terrible tragedy that unites both women in a journey towards redemption.
There were times when I found the moralizing to be too heavy-handed. Though Davis does a good job in setting up her characters, so that the moralizing feels organic to who they are, and to where their stories are headed, it got a bit much at times, and made me just want to tell everyone in the story to chill already. Despite Angela’s clear unhappiness in her marriage, her affair with Carsten is depicted as sordid, even shameful. The novel does display sympathy for her during the fallout from the tragedy, but it’s a sympathy that felt contingent on her repentance, not just for the tragedy itself, but for embarking on the affair in the first place.
Angela did make some poor choices, but where I consider those choices to be naive errors in judgement (seriously, IMHO, Carsten was never much of a prize), the novel presents them as sinful. There was such an undercurrent of judgment through the chapters on the affair, with Angela getting passive-aggressive comments from other characters, that I just wanted to tell her to find better friends already. Not necessarily friends who’ll condone the affair, but at least friends who won’t make her feel like she was on a one-way ticket to hell. And while Sister Eileen plays coy about how Angela should respond to the tragedy, the framing makes clear that punishment is the best way to cleanse the guilt, and move towards forgiveness.
Despite that, I ultimately found the book a comfort to read. I’d mentioned that it reminded me of some of the spiritual practices and events from my youth, and that’s because, equally embedded with all the shame and guilt, was the desire to love and to be loved. Davis writes beautifully, and Sister Eileen’s reflections on the nature of love, and what it means to love even when you don’t feel like it, can at times feel like a warm hug. There’s transcendence in forgiveness, particularly when turned towards oneself, and this novel explores that theme beautifully.
And despite the heavy-handedness of the moralizing at times, I think that overall, Angela isn’t presented so much as a sinner as a human being, with all the foibles and heart that entails. Her sense of despair, as she looks on her marriage, and realizes how trapped she feels in her own life, feels very real. And when she decides to have an affair with Carsten, we are pulled right into the relief she feels, as she finally indulges in something that makes her happy. There was also catharsis in how her story turns out, and a clear sense that she’s, if not happy, at least well on her way towards happiness.
Ultimately, I found Even So to be a moving tale of sin, guilt, and redemption. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I do think there are readers who’ll find it uplifting, maybe even transcendent. Angela and Sister Eileen are both archetypes and very much human — I think some readers may be able to recognize themselves in these characters, and find succour in how their stories turn out.
Thank you to Dundurn Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.