Grandmother and the Priests, Taylor Caldwell, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1963, 469 pp
Whenever I see a Taylor Caldwell novel on one of My Big Fat Reading Project bestseller lists, I sigh and groan and gird myself to suffer through another wordy, melodramatic, sometimes religious tone layered in with her odd political views. (You may ask, why do I read them then? For the answer, see my post on My Big Fat Reading Project.) This one was the #6 bestseller in 1963 and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It does have a strong religious theme but was much more palatable for me than The Shoes of the Fisherman. I will explain why.
The grandmother of the title is a rich Irish widow who gave up the Catholic religion at a young age. She likes to dress up, drink, and throw parties. For no explained reason, she regularly hosted dinner parties for a group of priests. Is it a cliche that priests love good rich food and fine wines, brandy and whiskey? I seem to have run across this trope in many novels ranging from mid 20th century bestsellers to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series.
What made this an enjoyable novel was the tales told by these priests as they sat around the fire after dinner, well fed and certainly a bit drunk. All of them are Irish and another cliche is what good storytellers the Irish are. That storytelling gift is also evident in all of Taylor Caldwell's books and I decided she was almost the Danielle Steele of her era.
The tales were entertaining as each priest looked back at his younger days, usually spent at some poor parish in off-the-beaten-track Irish towns. The housing was often shabby, the food spare, the weather beastly, and the nuns controlling. Yet these priests became father figure, judge, psychologist and just plain problem solver for their parishioners.
Every tale includes a moral conundrum demanding the young priest to think outside the box while maintaining a grounding in Catholic doctrine and needing to save as many souls as possible. Though a couple of these stories went on a bit too long, I actually loved the ways these holy men overcame doubt and fear and sometimes downright criminal behavior. In each case, it was their humanitarian urges that brought them through hardship to create better conditions for all involved.
We could use a few more men like them today!