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Any Bitter Thing    by Monica Wood order for
Any Bitter Thing
by Monica Wood
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

The sentence - ''Open your eyes, Lizzy. Lizzy, open your eyes. Open your eyes, Lizzy. Lizzy'. I did not open my eyes. I liked where I was' sets the mood for Monica Wood's Any Bitter Thing. The story - of faith, forgiveness, betrayal, redemption, and family bonds - is intimately moving, and unpredictable. It raises judicious questions about the Catholic church, the priesthood, and the essence of parental love. The novel begins with thirty something Elizabeth (Lizzy) Mitchell out for a run, after an argument with her husband Drew about his possible infidelity.

Lizzy was only two-and a-half years old when her parents died in a plane crash. Her uncle, Father Mike, a Catholic priest, was awarded custody. When Lizzy was nine, Uncle Mike was taken from her life, after a rumor from the church housekeeper began accusations of molestation. Lizzy was then taken in by Aunt Celie, who sent her off to boarding school, only having her at home for three weeks in the summer. By winter there was news of Father Mike's death. Lizzy didn't know why she had been taken from him, other than Aunt Celie telling her that her beloved Uncle went away on a retreat, and later died of a heart attack. Years passed as Lizzy built her life to become a guidance counselor at Hinton-Stanton Regional High School, in Maine. Twenty years later she sees Father Mike as an apparition after a hit-and-run accident hospitalizes her with severe injuries and concussion.

Lizzy Mitchell is hit by a stolen car driven by a teenager out to impress her boyfriend and his buddies. Her recollections during intense recuperation and therapy are, 'Despite its abrupt arrival, my accident felt anticipated after the fact, like a long-delayed package arriving as a 'thwup' on the doorstep. Finally, I thought, as I spun through the air and thudded back to earth, delivered.' She was conscious enough after the hit to remember that a man labeled by the community as the 'bad Samaritan' lifted her from the yellow-line in the road, placed her by the side of the road, returned to his vehicle and drove away. The man called 911, and comes forward later to identify himself to Lizzy - an alcoholic named Harry Griggs.

The author lends voice to both main characters in alternating chapters, some spoken from Lizzy's point of view, and others from Father Mike's. The latter recalls when he was first assigned to St. Bartholemew's parish, the changes he instituted, and the hopes he had for Lizzy. He sometimes questions whether he had 'misheard God all those years ago', i.e. the call to a vocation in the priesthood. Members of the parish disliked their new pastor, especially the bitter housekeeper Mrs. Hanson, who testified against him - and one woman's word was taken as truth, even though she had not witnessed what she claimed. Monsignor Flanagan, along with other heads of the church were unhappy 'with the ways of Father Mike' in overseeing St. Bart's parish. 'Too much father and not enough priest'.

Father Mike counsels, consoles, and confides in many of his parishioners. Next-door neighbor Vivienne (mother of Lizzy's best-friend Mariette) understands his worries about parenting his niece. Vivienne is married to an abusive alcoholic, who comes and goes in his family's life, then one night disappears for good. The commonality of loss binds the two girls in their youth, and lasts through college and their careers in academia. In the presence of brother priests during a card game, Father Mike questions, 'How do we advise wives and husbands on 'marital intimacy'? We, without the experience of eunuchs! We're choirboys… masquerading as grows ups!', to which one priestly brother retorts, 'We know plenty about commitment ... but there are those 'jumping the league'' (leaving the priesthood).

Returning home from the hospital, Lizzy recognizes that Drew and Mariette 'think I'm not altogether - healed', as they change the subject each time she refers to Father Mike's visitation. 'It had always been my habit of thinking out loud, but now my husband took my habit as 'faulty thinking' or 'lack of concentration', symptoms of post-traumatic stress', she ponders. Visiting with Harry Griggs, Lizzy finds solace in learning more details of that tragic night, putting pieces of a puzzle together, as he comforts her by agreeing with the possibility of Uncle Mike's appearance. Of that Lizzy thinks, 'I had been 'out' - unconscious but not gone ... My uncle - Father Mike, twenty one years gone - stepped through that open gate ... I was unutterably happy.'

Monica Wood writes with grace and elegance, drawing from the memories of her own doting Uncle Father Bob, a central male figure in her life after her father died when she was nine years old. The Breviary prayer books that Father Bob left behind after his death serve as the structure of the novel - each Father Mike chapter begins with a specially marked epigraph from that breviary. Any Bitter Thing is an exceptional read.

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