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The Archivist: A Novel

The Archivist: A Novel

3.7 4
by Martha Cooley

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A young woman's impassioned pursuit of a sealed cache of T. S. Eliot's letters lies at the heart of this emotionally charged novel -- a story of marriage and madness, of faith and desire, of jazz-age New York and Europe in the shadow of the Holocaust. The Archivist was a word-of-mouth bestseller and one of the most jubilantly acclaimed first novels of recent years.


A young woman's impassioned pursuit of a sealed cache of T. S. Eliot's letters lies at the heart of this emotionally charged novel -- a story of marriage and madness, of faith and desire, of jazz-age New York and Europe in the shadow of the Holocaust. The Archivist was a word-of-mouth bestseller and one of the most jubilantly acclaimed first novels of recent years.

Editorial Reviews

Raiders of the Lost Archives

The Morgan Library in New York recently acquired letters written by Thomas Pynchon to his agent, but the head librarian decreed that this correspondence will not be available to scholars during the author's lifetime; in other words, Pynchon has to croak before we can read them. A few miles south, in Princeton, New Jersey, there's another potentially explosive series of letters that are locked up until the year 2019 -- ones that renowned poet T. S. Eliot wrote to a woman named Emily Hale.

I know what you're thinking: Emily Hale -- who's she?

"Emily Hale was probably the only person Eliot honestly confided in," says poet Roberta Spire. "With others Eliot equivocated about his feelings for Vivien. But I figure he told Emily the truth."

The Vivien that Spire refers to was Eliot's first wife, the one the poet stuck in a mental institution after 23 years of marriage. Spire is a little crazy herself. She recently tried to convince Matthias Lane, caretaker of the special collection at Princeton, to let her read the Eliot-Hale letters before their scheduled 2019 unveiling.

Spire and Lane are fictional, of course -- characters in The Archivist, a marvelous new novel by Martha Cooley. It's her first novel, and it's good. But it's not just a good first novel -- it's a damn good novel, period. It reads like a crackerjack detective novel: Will she or won't she get to read the secret letters?

Speaking of detectives, let me intrude a moment to describe Cooley as if I were a private eye. You see, right after I meet the dame, she jokes about women writers being interviewed by fashion magazines, which spend most of the interview describing what the woman is wearing. Although I don't write for fashion mags, I have to tell you about Cooley's garb. The problem is, I don't know couture from Cocteau. I can only say that Cooley is wearing blue. A blue skirt. Blue blouse. Blue sweater thing. Little blue hat. I think of a lazy lake full of sailboats. A clear sky during the church picnic. Cooley herself is not blue. She's both relaxed and edgy. As if she'd just bumped off some blackmailer and is now ready to talk serious literature.

I ask her how she started the book. Cooley slowly sips some ice water (she was offered numerous liquids, but chose ice water). Puts the glass down. Tells me she began it in Moscow, 1988. Her ex-husband was working there. Was he a spy? She shakes her head: "Businessman." Then she tells a story: "One breakfast, I read an article about Emily Hale's bequest of a collection of T. S. Eliot letters to Princeton University. I thought, 'If I was that librarian, I'd be in the library with a flashlight reading those letters.'" She then gives a sly laugh. "Who'dah thunk that T. S. had a girl on the side!"

Up until that moment in Moscow, Cooley had only written short stories. "I was getting nowhere with them," she says with a frown. "I was feeling stupid...like I should just forget writing. But I gave myself a little exercise of writing a character study of this Princeton librarian. I pictured him as this proper guy -- or professionally correct guy -- tempted as he'd never been before to breach his ethics and read these letters. But then, almost immediately, another character showed up. Another transgressor into this trove of letters."

That transgressor turned out to be poet Roberta Spire. And before Cooley knew it, she'd started a novel about the letters. And marriages. And T. S. Eliot.

"So what's this about Eliot's crazy wife?" I ask.

Cooley gives a sad smile. "Different people have different opinions. The Eliots' marriage was tortured and torturing. They were enmeshed in this mutual need and mutual repulsion. Vivien was overdrugged. She took ether. She was also probably manic depressive. And I would think that living with her would be a nightmare. She would get hysterical and have these bouts of colitis. It would make Eliot queasy. He just didn't want to get anywhere near menstruation and fever and weird stuff. Girl aliments were not his cup of tea."

Eliot wrote Hale letters all during his marriage, but after his wife died he found himself with "this status as unredeemed sinner. And it blew up in his face. Emily Hale was part of the debris of that explosion," Cooley says.

Asked about recent charges of Eliot's anti-Semitism, Cooley frowns. "He was not someone I would have wanted to have dinner with on a Saturday night, but did he change the landscape of modern poetry? Better believe it."

What about the poetry itself? "I think 'Four Quartets' is quite something, to put it mildly," Cooley says, then quotes five or six lines from memory. "'Ash Wednesday' is quite something as well. The prayer that ends it is quite beautiful. It's gorgeous, almost liturgical."

She recites lines from that one. I pour more ice water -- for me. When Cooley finishes, I ask her abut LeRoi Jones, another poet she quotes in her book. She tells me she loves early Jones, but "fell off the log sometimes in the late '70s when Jones was in his Maoist phrase. I saw him read these ideological poems while these girls stood behind him doing these Rockette kick things, chanting, 'Mao Tse Tung! Mao Tse Tung!' I thought, This is not the man who wrote those wonderful poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suidide Note."

We talk more about poetry. "I love the work of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert," she says. "The Mr. Cogito poems. They're these unbelievably funny, wry, very political and personal poems all done through this persona of this man Mr. Cogito."

Cooley is a novelist, and she does read fiction, of course. She raves about The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. "I was just constantly talking to the book while I was reading it. I was also learning the whole time. 'Look at how he didn't do flashbacks the way they're usually done.' This may sound like it's all vivisection, but what was nice about that book was that Ishiguro kept what John Gardner calls the 'fictional spell.'"

Ah, that magic! Martha Cooley has mastered that very same spell. Who knows what you'll say to The Archivist as you read it. I said a lot of "Wow," and "Oh, wow"s. A "Holy cow" or two. And finally, "Great book. Great book." The Archivist has also inspired me to plot a break-in at a certain library. I won't tell you if it's the one at Princeton. Or the Morgan. But I'll surely have my flashlight handy for my nocturnal letter reading. And if I'm busted, I'll just plead insanity -- tell the cops that I'm crazy over Martha Cooley's novel, The Archivist.

—David Bowman

Entertainment Weekly
Boston Globe
Washington Post Book World
A memorable achievement.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The reserved voice of 65-year-old Matthias Lane, archivist at a prestigious Eastern university, opens this remarkably assured first novel, a complex and beautifully written tale of loss, crises of faith and resolution. Then we read the anguished journal of his wife, Judith, a poet who committed suicide in a mental institution in 1965, the same year as T.S. Eliot died. This is just one of the many parallels between the life of the poet and those of Matt and Judith (Eliot, of course, committed his own wife, Vivienne, to an asylum). Grad student and poet Roberta Spire requests Matt's permission to look at the sealed correspondence between Eliot and a Boston woman named Emily Hale, to whom he may have bared his emotions. Roberta has more than an academic interest in this correspondence. She is immensely disturbed by her parents' belated revelation that they were Jews who fled Germany and converted to Christianity in the U.S., and she feels that Eliot's conversion to Catholicism may hold insights for her. She is unaware that Judith's mental breakdown was related to the Holocaust, but Matt is quick to see the relationship and to recognize the parallels between Eliot's reclusive personality and his own emotional detachment. As several wrenching surprises about the past are revealed, Matt is finally opened to his pain and guilt and to an affirmative act of connectedness and trust. With its sinewy interplay of moral, spiritual and philosophical issues, its graceful interjection of lines of poetry and references to jazz, the novel first engages the reader's intellect. Soon, however, the emotions are also engaged, and the narrative acquires unflagging suspense as it peels back layers of secrets. This is an auspicious debut from a writer who already has mastered the craft.
Library Journal
Matthias Lane quietly inhabits his work as the keeper of an unnamed university library's special collection, which includes the letters T.S. Eliot wrote to Emily Hale. When a young poet requests access to the sequestered papers, Matt must confront a personal history he's been avoiding--a mystery that, ironically, recalls the terrible pain between Eliot and his wife, Vivienne. Cooley builds upon a parallel between Vivienne and Matt's dead wife, Judith, to reveal a staid conformity that cannot withstand the failure of love. Told through Matt's recollections and Judith's journals, this excellent first effort chips away at issues of religious faith, madness, and the troubling intersection between life and art.
The Archivist is a romance and a novel of ideas....A deeply symbolic story about privacy and memory.
Brian Morton
[A] thoughtful and well-written first novel, suffused withintellectual and moral integrity.
The New York Times Book Review
Steven Moore
It is rare and gratifying to read a novel about people who take literature seriously, who practically live and die by books….The Archivist is a memorable achievement.
Washington Post Book World
Christina Patterson
A literary detective story…beautifully paced and gripping….An impressive debut.
The Observer (London)
Kirkus Reviews
A sophisticated and compelling debut—about libraries though without a particle of dust, and with passion galore though about inability to love. Matthias Lane has been bookish all his life and may not seem like much to write about—a buttoned-up man in his 60s, chief archivist of rare books and manuscripts in a university library. But when a grad student named Roberta Spire asks to see T.S. Eliot's letters to his passionate but unrequited lover Emily Hale, a set of associations is let loose that will reveal the painful truth (and deceit) of Matt's past life and the painful truth as well of a great sweep of the 20th century. Though 30 years his junior, Roberta reminds Matt of his own dead wife, Judith—who was also beautiful, also passionate, and also a poet. There are other parallels between Roberta and Judith—both had been deceived, in one way or another, about their own past, their parents' past, and their own Jewishness. And both, in different ways, were connected with the fate of the Jews in WWII Europe. Judith, in fact, in the years after the war, grew so obsessed by the emerging details of the Holocaust—and by people's having stood by and done nothing—that she became unhinged and was committed by Matt to an institution (just as Eliot had earlier committed his own wife Vivienne), where a fate awaited her that will grip any reader and that will haunt the self-blaming Matt forever. Roberta's appearance causes him to revisit that past, revisit—and revise—his own guilt, and suffer again both the intensity of his love for the doomed Judith and the terrible, fear-based inadequacy of it. What sounds like an entirely dour tale takes wings in Cooley'shands, is enlivened by her eye for character, detail, place, period, every small human nuance—and by her perfect, apt quotations from Eliot's poems. A superlative, serious, gripping literary treasure.

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Little, Brown and Company
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Part One

WITH A LITTLE EFFORT, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition. A cat is a mammal, a narcissist, a companion, a riddle.

I've been reading T. S. Eliot again, the nice hardback edition of his poems that Roberta gave me before she left. I'd almost forgotten how heady Eliot is, how much thinking he crowds into "Four Quartets":

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies, For the pattern is new in every moment

I cannot imagine what Vivienne Eliot must've thought when she read those lines. Locked away in Northumberland House, listening to German bombs dropping on London, waiting in vain for her husband to take her home.

Hearing his poems in her head. Alone, listening, forced to reconsider everything.

What is that sound high in the air London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Roberta, too, will reconsider. She'll be stunned, of course when she hears the news about the Hale bequest. But after she mulls it over, the whole thing won't seem so astonishing. I think she'll appreciate my motives even if she can't condone them.

I picture her in her kitchen, the new poems spread out on her table. By now she's probably learned them all by heart—or the best parts, anyway. I wonder what they'll prompt. More of her own, I trust; else why read Eliot—or anyone else?

We shall see.

ALTHOUGH I VE ALWAYS BEEN CALLED MATT, my first name isn't Matthew but Matthias: after the disciple who replaced Judas Iscariot. By the time I was four,I knew a great deal about my namesake. More than once my mother read to me, from the New Testament, the story of how Matthias had been chosen by lot to take the place of dreadful Judas. Listening, I felt a large and frightened sympathy for my predecessor. No doubt a dark aura hung over Judas's chair something like the pervasive, bitter odor of Pall Malls in my father's corner of the sofa.

As far as my mother was concerned, the lot of Matthias was the unquestionable outcome of an activity that seemed capricious to me: a stone-toss by the disciples. I tried with difficulty to picture a dozen men dressed in dust-colored robes and sandals, playing a child's game. One of the Twelve had to carry on, my mother explained, after Judas had perpetrated his evil. The seat couldn't be left empty. Hence Matthias: the Lord's servants had pitched their stones, and his had traveled the farthest.

So much for names. To the first-year students at the university where I work, I am merely Mr. Lane, the grey-mustached warden of the obscure Mason Room. But to graduate students I am something like a god, indispensable and unavoidable, keeper of countless objects of desire. And in reality? in reality I'm the archivist at one of America's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, where I oversee a collection of rare books and manuscripts, the notes and letters of dead writers and other prominenti, and boxes of miscellany donated by eccentric graduates. This archive, housed in a quiet wing of the main library, is among the finest anywhere; and I am its guardian.

I assumed my post in 1965, the year T. S. Eliot and my wife Judith died, and since then I've inhabited a secure realm. Of course, there have been the predictable encroachments of microfiche, computers, fax machines...I make use of these things, in fact I find them entertaining; but they have nothing to do with the life of the mind. The genuine scholars, those for whom books are nearly everything, pay little attention to the junior librarians with their keyboard fixations. The real scholars come to me. In this part of the library, I alone know where everything is. I have memorized the stacks and shelves and drawers, I could find books in the dark: by their broken spines, their covers' textures, their heft in my hand.

My work has always satisfied me. When scholars ask me about an unusual book that I haven't seen before, I experience an almost physical pleasure. It's as if I'm a boy again, scavengerhunting. When I'm on the trail alone, sure of my ability to find what I'm looking for, I experience my rewards.

Naturally there are frustrations, when things are misplaced or my time is wasted. I'm rough on pseudo-scholars, but I like assisting anyone who's serious even novices who can barely use the card catalogue. I look for the sign of real intention, that hunger which comes over a person's face when he really needs to find something in print. Except for a few of the oldest and most fragile manuscripts, I allow the collection to be read and used by anyone who passes my inspection. I don't hoard the treasure.

Materials not open to the public, however, are another story. Now and then some unscrupulous researcher will ask for a "quick look" at items that remain under lock and key until a specified date. This pushiness instantly annoys me, though it no longer surprises me. With such researchers I assume a weary, antagonized look as I explain that certain bequests arrive with clear restrictions on accessibility. Violating those limits is a form of grave-robbing. Yes: the images that come to me are those of exhumation, the unearthing of something meant to lie fallow something that will appear waxy and lifeless if brought to light too soon.

Of course I don't put it in just those terms. But the message gets across to anyone who thinks I'll pick up the shovel and dig for him.

I was set on edge, then, when last spring a young woman approached me about some letters of T. S. Eliot.

I want, said this woman in a tone neither loud nor soft but direct, to read the Emily Hale letters.

Had I not looked straight at her, I'm sure nothing would've ensued. But I stared at this woman, and in her eyes, which were large and curiously colored—a moss-grey shade, lustrous—I could see the genuine intention I've never been able to ignore.

There was something else. Her eyes summoned for me that strangely evocative line from Eliot's poem "Usk": Where the grey light meets the green air. And Judith, whom I'd buried two decades earlier. Since my wife's death I had encountered no one who reminded me of her in any way.

Glance aside—I heard the poem now as if it were being read to me—do not spell old enchantments. Let them sleep.

The young woman stood very still, waiting, her face a question.

The answer, I said aloud to her, is no.

MY WORK IS WHATEVER I WANT IT TO BE, and I report to no one regularly. The head librarian?the man in charge of the University's entire collection is a figurehead, well-to-do and poorly read, with whom I have only pe unctory contact. His deputy is Edith Bearden, who supervises several Junior librarians. Once a week, over lunch, Edith and I trade news or solicit one another's advice on technical maters We ve always gotten along, and after all these years we know ear other reasonably well. Then I'm withdrawn, which I suppose I often am, she doesn't pull at me. But when she needs my help or wants my company (for libraries can be lonely), she's not afraid to break into one of my unresponsive moods. Hers is the only lasting friendship I've known, and I'm grateful for it.

Each month I supply the library's Board with a brief summary of the activities in my wing. I prepare these reports in my office, which adjoins the Mason Room. Normally I leave the connecting door open so I can see who comes in and out. On busy days the receptionist admits around twenty people; on quiet days we have only a handful of visitors, and peace reigns.

During these calm days I become a literal bookkeeper. First I return calls and answer correspondence from other archivists, and then I catalogue new acquisitions. After that, I check the drawers containing oversized materials and generally see that everything is as it should be. I need those hours of silent physical labor, when I am alone with the collection and can experience it in its entirety. It's become almost a living thing for me. The bound books and loose-leaf manuscripts and files of letters and photos are a many-voiced convocation I attend as a kind o permanent host. Whenever I can, I read. Familiarity with the collection is my first obligation.

When I was a child, I had dozens of books. My father built me a bookcase for my tenth birthday. It ran the length of one of my bedroom walls, and I prized it almost as much as the books I arranged neatly on its three shelves. I employed a very simple cataloguing method alphabetization of titles, which meant that my Bible sat between Babar and Boats Under Bridges, a story about the difficult life of a New York harbor tugboat operator. I remember my mother expressing dismay at this arrangement. As a devout Presbyterian, she felt that the sacred Book should not be tossed in with profane paperbacks, and she urged me to keep my Bible next to my bed. It was her desire that I read it nightly and attend church each week with her, duties I fought then and have never undertaken since.

My mother was an unhappy woman, and unhealthy too terribly overweight and easily agitated by small things. She entered marriage with few established friendships, and as my father discouraged the formation of new ones, she became something of a recluse. Gradually, as I was growing up, she isolated herself from the people in our neighborhood in Washington Heights who might have helped her. Eunice Carey, who had an antique toy train set I coveted, and Betty Keep, a cheery widow I used to accompany on long rambles through the Cloisters these were women who wished my mother well and who felt sorry for me; I was, after all, the only child of an irascible accountant and a housewife who quoted the Bible a little too frequently. By the time I was twelve, my mother had ceased even the pretext of a social life for the family. And as both sets of grandparents were long dead and neither of my parents had siblings, I was effectively cut off from a community of adults.

Each Friday night my father satisfied his own needs for company by going to a bar around the corner from his of fice near Herald Square. There he would drink for a few hours with other dlssatisfied husbands, finally wending his way home at around eight o'clock, smelling of smoke and scotch. My mother and I would watch him descend from the heights of his drink-induced good humor to the foul mood that typically enshrouded him. He would bark orders at my mother, who lumbered anxiously from table to kitchen to fetch him extra water or more salt, and in my direction he would level a barrage of questions about my performance at school that week.

Fortunately I was a good student. Books were my refuge; I made friends, but often they interested me less than books And at home, in the face of my mother's perpetual anxiety and my fathers cantankerousness, I retreated into my small bedroom, where my books awaited me, reliably patient and tolerant. Now and then my father would engage me in conversation about a story I was reading, or my mother would read aloud a poem by Wordsworth or Blake. Those interludes I remember with intense clarity. Everything else from that time feels like a bruise feels when pressed: painful in a dull, unmemorable way.

Judith used to say I became an archivist to spite my parents. I suppose that is partly true. I knew my father wanted me to go into a more lucrative line of work, and my mother was eager for me to become a teacher or (better yet) a pastor—neither of which I had any intention of doing. But the truth of my choice ran deeper. Having so few emotional resources to spare after wasting them on a soured marriage, my parents could make no hard claims on my future. That it should include higher education was perhaps the only point on which we three were in unspoken agreement. Even on this issue, though, there was friction. My father was proud of my academic competence but uneasy about my lack of interest in business, and my mother was concerned about my spiritual life, unsupported as it was by any church. Neurotic and awkward and ailing, she still managed to convince herself of the necessity of a spiritual community, and she went to church each week until she became bedridden. She could never accept my solitariness, though I'd learned it from her.

On the day I entered college, I realized in a bitter flash that I owed my parents nothing. I believed, however, that I owed something to books, which had kept me going throughout my least happy stretches, and this belief eventually outweighed all other considerations. After a half-dozen years of work in bookstores, I enrolled in graduate school and began the study of library science.

I saw myself then, and still do, as inheritor of a rich tradition, one that straddles the line between mind and spirit. The great 1ibrarians have all been religious men, monks, priests, rabbis, and the stewardship of books is an act of homage and faith. Even Thomas Jefferson, that most rational and ingenious of librarians, revered what he called the Infinite Power. It's impossible to be a keeper of books and not feel a gratitude that extends to something beyond the intellects that created them to a greater Mind, beneficent and lively and inconceivably large, which urges reading and writing. Judith used to complain that libraries are full of too many false, banal books and she was right, of course, though it's never bothered me. A library is meant to be orderly, not pure.

In 1939, when I was twenty-one, my father and I made our first and only trip together. We took the train down to Washington. My mother was quite ill, and my father (normally no traveler) wanted to get away from the apartment. He proposed that my college graduation present be a visit to the capital. I had been there on a school trip and had no interest in the sights, but I accepted the invitation eagerly. I wanted to explore the Library of Congress.

As I'd anticipated, my father quickly tired of sight-seeing. By the time we reached Capitol Hill he was bored, and he left to seek out a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue. Alone and happy, I entered the library's cool foyer. At college I'd read many descriptions of the vast collection, but I was unprepared for the beauty of the building itself its vaulted ceilings and marble floors, its magnificent circular reading room fitted with mahogany benches, rows of soft reading lamps, and heavy brass-trimmed doors that kept out all noise. I walked around the upper gallery, reading the inscriptions that ring the second-story walls just below the ceiling, and I knew then that eventually I would claim such a place as my home.

My mother died that year, my father four years later, in 1943. A few months after his death, I went back to Washington to see the library again. This time I took color photographs, explored the stacks, and talked at length with the librarians. I also wrote each of the wall inscriptions on note cards. When I returned to New York, I bought a leather binder and made myself a scrapbook of the photos and cards.

Judith knew as no one else did what libraries meant to me. The scrapbook was among the first of my possessions I showed her, not long after we met. My memory holds an indelible image of Judith turning that book's pages, reading the inscriptions aloud. Literate as she was, she identified most of the authors. Then she read her favorite inscription: The True Shekinah Is Man. It came, she said, from the Kabbalah—the writings of Jewish mystics.

I asked her to explain the concept of shekinah. As she spoke about the Trees of Life and Death, I watched her full, mobile mouth, her long-fingered hands and slender arms, the shadows at her collarbones. Her entire body was suddenly an astonishing surprise to me. I can clearly remember how she looked up from the book's pages, her gaze locking with mine. I knew unconsciously, as one senses a cry before hearing it, that my life was going to be changed.

Crossing the room, I circled her shoulders with my arms. Her hands tightened at my back as we held each other for the first time, swaying back and forth, our lips skimming each other's cheeks and then meeting, lightly at first, my teeth on her tongue gently pulling and being pulled. I had experienced nothing so urgent and terrifying as the sound of my pulse at that instant, blood-driven beat of my heart.

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Archivist 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Haa, you ask who is Emily Hale? I am! Well I'm not the one T.S. Eliot wrote too, nore am I his muse but I share her name. It's a very good book and I am very intrested in what the letters are actually about (I know that the book isn't really about the relationship between Eliot and Hale). It is however well worth reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An intelligent novel that uncovers the truths of the heart. An excellent read that immediately grabbed my attention and lingers long after completion. The many layers and facets of the characters and their issues produced much food for thought. Very discussable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first started reading this novel it was tedious. All the quoting from T.S. Elliot bored me. By the time I got to the last 100 pages the storyline picked up. The last 100 pages were definitly worth it and it made my struggling through the beginning of the novel worth it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A gripping novel on many levels in which every page grips the readers. Beautifully written and a major achievement for a first novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is very less exciting. I just kept reading and at one point i finished reading books and i had no joy nor enthusiasm felt through out entire book. Story is very wierd. Some of the acts of Judith shown in here are very stupid. Comments given on religions make no sense. And also conversations between character sometimes makes absolutely no sense. At last, you should read this book only if its an assignment or you have no other choice from bookstore or library. I wouldnt suggest this book. I wasted 2 weeks, instead i would've finished reading 2 different books on psycological cases and religion in that time; that would've enlighten me more.