The Book of Mercy

The Book of Mercy

by Kathleen Cambor

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In a novel that “will grab your heart” (Library Journal), a mother’s absence continues to reverberate in the lives of the husband and two children she abandoned. A PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
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In a novel that “will grab your heart” (Library Journal), a mother’s absence continues to reverberate in the lives of the husband and two children she abandoned. A PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The intriguing subject of a modern man's fascination with alchemy and Cambor's haiku-sharp prose distinguish her impressive first novel. This is a book about storytelling and how we use it: "Forget truth, what matters is the way it felt, the tale you tell about it,'' one of the characters says. The narrative alternates between the third-person perspective of institutionalized Edmund Mueller, 83, as he looks back on a life defined by loss, and the first-person viewpoint of Edmund's 42-year-old daughter, Anne, a psychiatrist and single mother. Edmund's tale revolves around his melodramatic, irresponsible and increasingly mentally ill wife, who deserted him while Anne and her brother were small children. Shortly thereafter, Edmund, a Pittsburgh fireman, displaced his fascination with the transformative powers of fire to the study of alchemy. Cambor offers a serious treatment of the medieval art as Edmund learns of alchemy's laws and of its claim of the transmutability of any object or element (including of the dead into the living). Meanwhile, Anne relates her own life story: "Alchemy, God, psychiatry. Extreme attempts to fill the void,'' she muses. Yet loss keeps intruding: her brother Paul runs away to enter a seminary; her lover decamps, though she is pregnant. Anne's discovery, near the end, of the secret behind her father's obsession with alchemy adds a deeper note of poignancy. Cambor is a sensitive and imaginative writer. Readers will be seduced by her story of love, loss and redemption, and by the power of her prose. (June)
Library Journal
This family saga, told from the viewpoints of two Catholic German-AmericansEdmund Mueller and his daughter, Annewill grab your heart. Edmund is a fireman, and fire is both a symbol and a motif that runs through the novel. Fanny, his unstable wife, dances through the first quarter of the book, but she is too wild to be tamed. Anne tears herself away from home to study medicine, then falls in love with a man who has a child with her but marries someone else out of familial duty. Both father and daughter search for love but not of the quotidian kind; each wants something that will sear the soul. In her exquisitely detail-oriented writing, first novelist Cambor captures a Catholic childhood in ethnic Pittsburgh as effortlessly as she does late-night med-school dissections of Amelia, her practice corpse. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, Ind.
Kirkus Reviews
Cambor's first outing is an old-fashioned, frequently moving, always sweepingly readable tale of one family's long-extended suffering, decline, and final qualified hope.

Born early this century in Pittsburgh of rigidly German-Catholic immigrant parents, Edmund Mueller rebels by becoming a fireman instead of following his cabinet-maker father, then by choosing to marry a flighty girl named Fanny, who wants more than anything to become a dancer. The couple have a boy named Paul, then a girl named Anne, neither of whom Fanny shows a natural desire to care for—and in fact when her daughter is a year or so old, Fanny abandons the brood for a life on the road, dropping in unexpectedly now and again, then relying on postcards, those also soon trickling away. Its heart thus torn out, the family that's left behind begins its long, tortured effort to stay alive. While Edmund throws himself into his firefighting, Paul grows inward, and finally leaves home to join the Dominicans, eventually becoming a priest sent off to distant parts of the world. As for Anne, the minute she finishes "Catholic school" she's off to college, and after that medical school, leaving Edmund in the empty old house alone—where he grows steadily more eccentric, then neurotic, then psychotic, reading books on astrology and alchemy, finally transforming his basement into an alchemist's lab where he spends years trying to distill the magical substance (the Philosopher's Stone) that will bring back happiness and the past. Only after Anne has become a doctor (with a son of her own) will the family be reunited and Edmund rescued from his madness, although even then only amid tragedy intensified and renewed.

The publishers mention Cambor's having studied writing with Donald Barthelme, and perhaps that great innovator stirs in his rest as his student flowers forth, with deserved if ironic success, into the fictional not-new.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Harvest American Writing Series
Product dimensions:
5.33(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.69(d)

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