The Monk Downstairs: A Novelby Tim Farrington
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/em>/em>
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.
Beautifully written and playfully engaging, this novel. is about one man wrestling with his yearning for a life of contemplation and the need for a life of action in the world. But it's Rebecca's spirit, as well as her relationships with Mary Martha, Phoebe, her irresponsible surfer ex-husband Rory -- and, of course, the monk downstairs -- that makes this story shine.
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Rebecca finally finished painting the in-law apartment on a Friday night, and on Saturday morning she rented it to some poor guy who had just left a monastery. The ad had not even appeared in the papers yet, but she had tucked a tiny Apt. for Rent sign in the front window and he just wandered by and rang the bell. His name was Michael Christopher.
He was a lanky man in his early forties, a little Lincolnesque, with rounded shoulders and a long, sad face muffled by a beard in need of trimming. His hands were too big for his arms and his feet were too big for his legs. His hair was cropped close, the merest new dark stubble on a skull that had obviously been kept shorn until recently. The in-law apartment's ceiling was low and he kept his head ducked a little, whether from fear of smacking it or out of some deeper humility, Rebecca could not tell. It was her impression that he was in no danger if he wanted to straighten up, so maybe the hunch was meekness. He wore plain black trousers, rather rumpled, a shirt that had once been white but had yellowed remarkably, a black jacket with the shoulder seam split, and some white, high-top Converse sneakers from the era before athletic shoes made statements. After twenty years of living a monk's life, he could fit all his other possessions into a comically small black satchel. It looked like a doctor's bag.
"Why did you leave the monastery?" she asked him.
He shrugged. "I had a fight with my abbot. Among other things."
He smiled, a little wearily. "To put it in layman'sterms."
Rebecca laughed. "Well, that's not very Christian, is it?"
"It's sort of a long story." Christopher hesitated. "I was fed up with that place anyway, to tell you the truth. I had prayed myself into a hole."
The evidence of hotheadedness, along with his frankness, was strangely reassuring. She liked his smile and his unguarded brown eyes. He had no credit history at all, of course. He didn't even have a driver's license. He had a check, some kind of severance pay -- did contemplatives get severance pay? -- that he hadn't been able to get cashed. He had no job as yet. As far as she could determine he had no prospects, no plan, and no résumé. But there was something about him that she liked a lot, a gloomy depth. And there was the appeal of the quixotic. He had devoted his adult life to the contemplation of God. That was his résumé. He had done what she had always intended to do with her own life and flung it into the maw of Meaning in one grand, futile gesture, and he had nothing to show for it but the clothes on his back. He'd been sleeping in the park and he hadn't eaten in three days, but he seemed unperturbed by that. It was all very New Testament.
The apartment showed fast. A bathroom, a minute, stoveless kitchen with a half-fridge on one counter and a hot plate on the other, and the single real room in the place, an 8 x 15 box carpeted in a brown that had not seemed so dishearteningly the color of mud in the samples. The walls, at least, were a fresh cream. Rebecca was proud of her paint job.
The room's lone window opened into the barren backyard. Christopher went right to the glass and stood looking out at the weedy waste. Rebecca could feel his melancholy. It was not much of a prospect.
"I keep meaning to put in a garden back there," she said. "Or something. But there's never any time, it seems. And when there's time, I just want to recover."
"I'd be glad to do some work back there myself. It's a nice space."
"Ah, well--" Rebecca murmured, flustered, assuming he was angling to reduce the rent through work exchange. "If I could afford a gardener..."
His look was genuinely uncomprehending; it had not occurred to him to charge her. Well, that was very New Testament too, of course. But mortgages were Old Testament, and hers was about to balloon. She had been hoping to rent the apartment to a quiet spinster with an obvious income, not a down-and-out man of God.
As they stood there, she clearly heard his stomach growl. Their eyes met. His look was apologetic, with a trace of dry amusement; he had lovely warm brown eyes. Rebecca took him upstairs, gave him a bowl of Cheerios, and introduced him to her daughter. At six years old, Mary Martha was an infallible detector of bullshit. Christopher was immediately easy with the child in an unflamboyant way. So many adults just turned up the volume, as if a kid couldn't hear. But Christopher got quietly attentive, like a shy child himself. The two of them sat at the kitchen table with their twin bowls of cereal and studied the back of the box together. Mary Martha soon was chattering away, and when she invited Christopher to see her unicorns, Rebecca took it as a sign and let him have the apartment.
She was tempted to renege the next day. The deluge of applicants responding to the newspaper ad included a number of solid citizens. But by then she had cashed his monastery check for him and accepted first and last in cash, and he was settled in. And Rebecca had to admit that Christopher's delight in the in-law apartment was charming. She'd never seen a man so grateful for a shower, a hot plate, and a half-fridge.
To Br. James Donovan
c/o Our Lady of Bethany Monastery
Mendocino County, CA
Dear Brother James,
Thank you for...The Monk Downstairs. Copyright © by Tim Farrington. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Tim Farrington is the author of Lizzie's War, The Monk Downstairs,—a New York Times Notable Book—and The Monk Upstairs, as well as the critically acclaimed novels The California Book of the Dead and Blues for Hannah.
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