best_of_2016-generalKIRKUS REVIEW – September 1, 2016

A debut novel about a religious family that will pack a real wallop for Catholics (or ex-Catholics) of a certain age.

Taforo-Murphy takes readers back to post–World War II San Francisco and the struggling Kenny family. The story is about Ann Mary Kenny, a devout Catholic, and narrated in retrospect by her middle child, Theresa. This is a family that’s slowly being torn apart by the issue of contraception—or rather the prohibition against it, as dictated by the holy mother church. It’s an age-old bind for married women: to celebrate the connubial act (as the church—and one’s husband—encourages) but then to be terrified that it may result in yet another mouth to feed. One funny and sad chapter has a bewildered Ann Mary trying to follow along while a doctor explains in detail the “rhythm method,” the only birth-control option that the church approves. Henry, the non-Catholic father, becomes more frustrated, angry, and distant. The book is an unapologetic polemic, and conservative Catholics may be enraged, but Taforo-Murphy gives no quarter. There are good people in this story, such as Father Capwell, the pastor of St. Cyril’s parish, who “really was a kind man, a man with the unselfconscious sweet innocence of an angel, a rather dim angel, one settled into an only minimally reflective goodness.” But there’s the rub: this old, feckless priest is the best of the bunch. As Taforo-Murphy portrays it, the church as an institution is rule-ridden, absolute, and smugly, unshakably certain, even if it costs a woman’s sanity. Parochial school also gets its lumps here, as it’s apparently designed to instill a lively guilt. Young Theresa herself, aiming in her own twisted way to save her mother from hell, becomes a moral fanatic, a confessional junkie. The Mission Band, a tag team of visiting priests, preaches sermons that would make any Puritan look wishy-washy. Thus are people ground down with the best of intentions in this novel. An afterword reveals that young Theresa’s story was based on Taforo-Murphy’s own, so readers will know why she pulled no punches.

Taforo-Murphy is a born storyteller with a poet’s ear and eye, making every line of her hilarious, biting, and vengeful book a pleasure to read.