The Monk Downstairs, by Tim Farrington

>> Tuesday, May 11, 2004

I never would have heard of The Monk Downstairs, by Tim Farrington, if it hadn't been for the review at AAR.

Rebecca Martin is a single mother with an apartment to rent and a sense that she has used up her illusions. I had the romantic thing with my first husband, thank you very much, she tells a hapless suitor. I'm thirty-eight years old, and I've got a daughter learning to read and a job I don't quite like. I don't need the violin music. But when the new tenant in her in-law apartment turns out to be Michael Christopher, on the lam after twenty years in a monastery and smack dab in the middle of a dark night of the soul, Rebecca begins to suspect that she is not as thoroughly disillusioned as she had thought.

Her daughter, Mary Martha, is delighted with the new arrival, as is Rebecca's mother, Phoebe, a rollicking widow making a new life for herself among the spiritual eccentrics of the coastal town of Bolinas. Even Rebecca's best friend, Bonnie, once a confirmed cynic in matters of the heart, urges Rebecca on. But none of them, Rebecca feels, understands how complicated and dangerous love actually is.

As her unlikely friendship with the ex-monk grows toward something deeper, and Michael wrestles with his despair while adjusting to a second career flipping hamburgers at McDonald's, Rebecca struggles with her own temptation to hope. But it is not until she is brought up short by the realities of life and death that she begins to glimpse the real mystery of love, and the unfathomable depths of faith.
This was a very pleasant book, not one that was "exciting", but one that was lovely to read all the same. My grade would be a B.

I might be reading the wrong "fiction" books, but The Monk Downstairs surprised me because unlike so many of those books, which seem to delight in presenting a jaded view of relationships, portraying every single one as disfunctional, this one showed an uplifting love affair. It actually read like a cross between romance and women's fiction in that way.

The romance was very low-key and pleasant (that word again!) and sweet; no larger-than-life passions to be seen here! This tone fit wonderfully, because of the kind of people Rebecca and Michael were. In the end, I ended up really believing in their relationship and that they would be ok in the future. I especially loved how near the end of the book Rebecca thinks that being with Mike makes it easier for her to be kind to people. What a beautiful thing to say, that!

Michael was a lovely hero, but almost too much of a cypher. We only see his POV in his letters to a former fellow monk, and, illuminating as those were, I would have liked to have seen more. Notwithstanding the book's title, this was mostly Rebecca's story, and though I found her a nice, interesting character, I was actually more interested in Michael and ended up slightly unsatisfied in that respect.

I adored Rebecca's relationship with her mother, Phoebe. They were very much mother and daughter, but mother and daughter once the child has grown up enough for them to appreciate each other as adults. It was nice, for once, to see a mom and daughter who actually liked the persons each were. However, speaking of Phoebe, I wasn't too crazy about the crisis near the end of the book. True, it showed Rebecca that she could depend on Michael, drove home the point that this wasn't another Rory, but Mike came across as too perfect here.

Something else I liked was the theme of faith and the contemplative life vs the active life that was explored throughout the book. I really liked how it was dealt with, with absolutely no preaching on the part of the author, just a quiet exploration.


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