<b>A (former) nun's story</b> In the preface to her memoir, <b>The Tulip and the Pope</b>, novelist Deborah Larsen (<i>The White</i>) confesses that her recall of five years spent as a young Roman Catholic nun was like envisioning a string of paper lanterns . . . lit spottily against the dark along a dock, where some days, even now, waves dash. This revelation forecasts the narrative to come, one that movingly and honestly explores an innocent girl's faith and subsequent coming-of-age in well-crafted, evocative prose.
It is July 1960, in Dubuque, Iowa, and 19-year-old Larsen and two friends sit in a taxicab outside the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are nervously smoking their last cigarettes, on the edge of a new life, and are, says Larsen, blithe to become nuns. Young Deborah, simply, loved God, and was inspired by Belgian nurse Sister Luke in <i>The Nun's Story</i>. She desired to do good, and felt that being heroic, changing the world, was much better than being married and getting out the Electrolux. Short, quirkily titled chapters ( Hair and the Habit, Joan of Arc's Kneecaps ) reveal Larsen's conformed life, of both body and mind, behind the convent doors a life navigated with eyes continually downcast, as dictated by a meditative rule called custody of the eyes. This view into a nun's sequestered world is intriguing, often amusing, but it is Larsen's rigorously truthful and self-questioning chronicle of her journey of faith that holds the reader in thrall. The story is told with the wisdom of 40 years' hindsight, and the author achieves an admirable blend in her narrative voice: she ably recaptures her youthful naivete, as well the growing doubt that leads her back to a secular life.
The book's unusual title refers to a spiritual epiphany Larsen had as a child while observing a tulip in the family garden. The lovely meditation on this experience, and how it brought her closer to God, makes this an especially redeeming read. <i>Alison Hood is a writer based in San Rafael, California.</i>