With Holy Rule, Mary Frances Coady revisits the cloistered Catholic world she explored in her 2009 short-story collection, The Practice of Perfection. Those stories followed a group of novitiates taking their first steps toward becoming nuns. Holy Rule details three weeks in the lives of long-time sisters.
The year is 1958. Pope Pius XII is on his deathbed. As the nuns come to grips with the imminent loss of their Holy Father, quiet but deeply felt resentments threaten the convent’s perfect order. The aging Reverend Mother, who demands absolute obedience, dispatches a spy, Sister Antonetta, to weed out and punish recalcitrant nuns. In the first chapter, Sister Antonetta smokes a cigarette without permission and burns an embroidered cloth in the convent library; that cloth reappears throughout the rest of Holy Rule, a subtle symbol of the damage and imperfection present in even the holiest of places.
Coady’s writing is most engaging when it focuses on investigating the nun’s imperfections. She invites readers into the minds of women struggling profoundly with obedience to the Church. Sister Antonetta only goes through the motions of religious devotion. Sister Martha longs for love and acceptance, but cannot contain impulsive urges to berate her students or read prohibited magazines. Reverend Mother herself, who at first resembles Big Brother in a wimple, also turns out to be flawed and deeply human. Coady conveys the psychological complexities of the nuns’ lives without passing judgment on their choices and beliefs. Her prose is as pragmatic and unadorned as the women who populate her pages. The world she reveals behind the imposing convent walls is surprisingly rich, and entering that world is a rewarding experience.
Unfortunately, Coady frequently turns away from the nuns and devotes chapters to the troubles facing the girls who attend St. Monica’s, and to the mind of a lustful visiting priest. These sections break up the flow of the narrative and aren’t as powerful or memorable as the immersive world the author creates through the eyes of the nuns.