The Cloister

Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Mar. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780385541275. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385541282. F
On a whim, Father Michael Kavanagh, a Catholic priest, stops by the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan, troubled by an encounter at mass with a former friend. There he falls into conversation with Rachel, a museum docent. She's French, a Holocaust survivor reticent to talk about her past. She lends him her copy of the confessions of Abelard, the brilliant 12th-century philosopher whose forbidden love affair with his pupil, the equally brilliant Heloise, led to his emasculation and exile. Rachel's scholar father had been studying Abelard when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940 and his academic life came to an abrupt end. Medieval and 20th-century narratives intertwine in this novel of ideas, foremost among them that people at the top often abuse their power over others. In passing, the book discusses one of history's great what-ifs: what if Abelard's plea to love the Jews had been taken seriously by his church, a question Carroll (Warburg in Rome) raised earlier in his nonfiction Constantine's Sword.
VERDICT The connection between the moral dilemmas of the two ages is muddy, and the alternating narratives slow the momentum. Still, this is a book of heart, with serious questions asked about faith, obedience, and love. [See Prepub Alert, 9/25/17.]
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