Review: The Convent by Maureen McCarthy

Title: The Convent

Author: Maureen McCarthy

Published: Allen & Unwin October 2012

Synopsis: ‘I woke up with a feeling about today,’ Stella says dreamily. ‘Something truly amazing is going to happen.’ ‘To us or to the world?’ I say. ‘To you.’ ‘To me?’ I laugh. ‘Nothing ever happens to me, Stella.’ ‘But today it will.’ ‘Will it be good?’ She looks thoughtful and then frowns. ‘I … I don’t know.’
Peach is nineteen and pretty happy with the way things are. She has her university work, two wildly different best friends, her sister, Stella, to look after and a broken heart to mend. But when she takes a summer job at a cafe in the old convent, her idea of who she is takes a sharp turn into the past. Where once there were nuns, young girls and women who had fallen on hard times, Peach discovers secrets from three generations of her family. As their stories are revealed, Peach is jolted out of her comfort zone. But does she really want to know who she is? Warm and real, intense and provocative, Maureen McCarthy’s The Convent shows in vivid detail how fate and the choices we make ripple and reverberate through time. Read an Extract

Status: Read from September 30 to October 01, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Allen & Unwin}

My Thoughts:

Maureen McCarthy is one of the few authors whose protagonists are generally aged in their late teens or early twenties, embarking on university or finding their way in the first years after leaving school. I started university about the time Queen Kat, Carmel & St. Jude Get A Life was published (it has been republished this year by Allen & Unwin) and loved the book, quickly devouring the rest of her backlist soon after. It has been a while now since I have read anything by the author but I was thrilled to receive The Convent for review. Though The Convent is labeled as young adult fiction, I feel the novel will appeal to a much broader age range of women. A thoughtful, intriguing and heartfelt story, it explores the experiences of four generations of women whose fates are linked to the Abbotsford Convent.

Nineteen year old Peach (Perpetua) has always admired the Abbotsford Convent’s grandeur, now home to artists studio space, boutique stores and the cafe at which Peach works, but she was unaware of it’s personal significance. Adopted at birth, it isn’t until Peach receives a letter from her biological grandmother, Ellen, that she learns her grandmother was raised there and her birth mother, Cecilia, once served as a nun within the Enclosed order. While Peach struggles to come to terms with the unexpected information about her past, it is her present that she is most concerned with. Her sister is depressed, her best friend is pregnant and she is still reeling after a messy break up.

As Peach navigates her way through her changing world, McCarthy traces Peach’s lineage and their connection to the convent. Sadie was declared an unfit mother in 1915 after her husband abandoned her and her daughter Ellen taken from her to be raised in Abbotsford. Ellen spent her entire childhood as a ward of the nuns before marrying and her daughter, Cecilia pledged her life to God’s service as a young woman. The author shares snippets of these women’s lives and their hopes, dreams and regrets with alternating chapters.

Through the the women’s stories, McCarthy also traces the changing social and moral landscape for women over the century. Attitudes to women’s rights, motherhood, marriage and sexuality have shifted seismically in the last one hundred years and the author acknowledges the evolution without any feminist rant.

McCarthy admits that she has a very personal connection to this story. Most significantly McCarthy’s own mother was raised in the Abbotsford Convent after being made a ward of the state at age 3 and while she rarely spoke about her time there, McCarthy was always fascinated by her mother’s early life. McCarthy’s interest in her characters and their experiences is evident in the care in which she has constructed the story.

The Convent is a wonderful story, an easy read but with surprising depth for the thoughtful reader to ruminate on. This is a great choice for any Australian Women Writer Challenge participants given the relevance of its themes.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Teddyree
    Oct 06, 2012 @ 19:09:39

    I haven’t read anything by this author but The Convent is already on my wishlist, I have a feeling I’ll love it. Enjoyed your review

    Reply

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