The Beauty of Ordinary Things, by Harriet Chessman

One of my favourite books is One Book: Five Ways, in which designers are given a text and asked to design a book. The resulting books are as unlike one another as can be imagined and yet they all reflect the book. In The Beauty of Ordinary Things by Harriet Scott Chessman, various characters design (or fail to) their lives and in doing so, tell a single, though interwoven story from several points of view. Multiple points of view about a single object/person/event/crisis, etc. are especially intriguing to me — and this slim novel was masterfully crafted to keep each point of view on topic.

I confess that I am in rather a unique position to appreciate this book, having lived this life — that of Sister Clare — and in the same era, and although her dilemmas weren’t all, or entirely, mine, they were central questions for many of my fellow sisters.

Everything in the novel is familiar — and authentic. There is some real beauty in this tale and in the writing of it — and I was loathe to put it down when finished. It deserves multiple readings.

Perhaps the crucial element of this story was its ring of truth — I’ve read a great many novels about nuns — as well as memoirs of convent life — and most of them seem heavily weighted in retrospective discontents. In The Beauty of Ordinary Things, Harriet Chessman has drawn (what from my experience seems to be) a contextual and ephemeral discontent, within a perspective of dedication and universality that overrides transient distress and reveals the particular beauty that is a consecrated life. And not just for Sister Clare. Highly recommended.

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