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Review: 'The Miracle on Monhegan Island' by Elizabeth Kelly

| Friday, July 8, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
'The Miracle on Monhegan Island' by Elizabeth Kelly. (Photo courtesy W.W. Norton & Company/TNS)
'The Miracle on Monhegan Island' by Elizabeth Kelly. (Photo courtesy W.W. Norton & Company/TNS)

The title, the summery cover illustration and the dog narrator (yes, a dog narrates this book) might mislead readers; Elizabeth Kelly's third novel, “The Miracle on Monhegan Island,” is neither ‘lite' nor chick lit. It's serious and thought-provoking, shot through with dark humor and dark observations on religion and faith.

Years after the death of his young wife, Flory, prodigal son Spark Monahan returns to the family home off the coast of Maine. Here he is reunited with his father, a bombastic pastor; his brother, Hugh, an artist; and his own 12-year-old son, Hally (short for “Hallelujah”), whom he has not seen since Hally was a baby.

The family is slightly off-kilter; they are all still recovering from Flory's death and her profound mental illness. Meanwhile, Pastor Ragnar's church is failing and everyone is broke.

Spark is a great character, cynical and defiant; his sidekick is Ned, a small red Shih-tzu that he stole from a parked car. Ned narrates the book; he is smart, wry, observant, thoughtful, curious, funny — and yet very much a dog. He barks at inappropriate moments, sniffs everything, makes sardonic asides about other, lesser breeds.

And then Hally sees a vision. Out on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, he sees the Virgin Mary, who tells him to pray and to love. Spark worries that Hally is cracking up like Flory, who saw things and heard voices. Hugh suspects confusion (“Are you sure it wasn't DeeDee White?” a local resident with “a penchant for pale togas, fey notions and ethereal wanderings”).

But Pastor Ragnar smells opportunity. And the next thing you know, word is out, the church is packed, money is rolling in and fervent pilgrims appear, following Hally night and day, hoping for a miracle.

“The Miracle on Monhegan Island” builds slowly from a story about a dysfunctional family to a novel about obsession, religious fervor and mental illness — and the sometimes very fine line between them. Even with a canine storyteller, this is one of the meatier books of the summer.

Laurie Hertzel is a Star Tribune (Minneapolis) writer.

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