Here is a book review for all who want to keep reading. Experts please feel free to add questions. I will keep adding passages with MISSION RC title. Someone please suggest if this is a copywrite violation.
Copyright: The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/books ... gewanted=1
'The Silver Screen': Persona Versus Person
By RICHARD EDER
Published: August 29, 2004
A sundial won't work if it's cloudy -- or if the sky offers three suns instead of one. With each casting its own shadow on the dial, what time would it be? Eight, eleven and three? It's not a bad image for Maureen Howard, and if a tad complicated, why so is she. Her writing is a chronological whirligig, with events as likely to be told after their consequences as before and sometimes simultaneously. Her narrative is as much concurrent as consecutive, cut into strips and mixed up for a reader to assemble. She dazzles, though, and if her dazzle may give us three separate sunburns, they're the result of an outing as raptly adventurous as it is demanding.
''The Silver Screen'' is the third in a four-book project, each part of which bears the vague coloring of a particular season. Following winter (''A Lover's Almanac'') and spring (''Big as Life''), here we have summer; but note the ''vague.'' Characteristically, Howard implies more connection than she demonstrates. This can be frustrating, but it also works as a sort of subliminal abduction. Partly blindfolded, we sense more than we see.
While the specific links among the novels are minor, the general link is very strong. You could say that Howard writes historical fiction, but not in any usual sense of the word. Her subject is families: the vast distances and binding proximities that afflict their members, each endowed with emotional complexity and a pulsing jagged breath. More than just their own breath, though: that of the larger American society whose currents plunge and shift down centuries of history.
The myths that preside over our destinies are wielded not by gods but by technology, money, fashion, entertainment and shopping. In ''A Lover's Almanac,'' sketches of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison are juxtaposed with the hesitancies of two modern lovers upended, beetlelike, antennae feebly waving, by the messages of the time.
''Silver Screen,'' which is told as the story of the Murphy family, is a searching series of variations on one of Howard's large themes: celebrity in American life, the allure it holds, the falsification it works. Persona versus person: it's a conflict that painfully engages the principal characters, New Englanders from a decayed seashore community.
The novel opens with the quiet death of Bel Murphy, in her late 80's or even 90's. Her unmarried daughter, Rita, who lives with her, and her son, Joe, a Jesuit priest, mingle irritably at the funeral with Gemma Riccardi, a neighbor Bel turned into a virtual family member. Three of these four were in the public eye and returned. The other is just now heading out into it.
Bel Murphy left her schoolteacher job and her Yankee tinkerer of a father, would-be inventor of a perfect watch, to become a Hollywood star of the silent films. After a few years she came back East, despite a possibly promising future in the talkies, to marry the insurance-salesman fiance she'd abandoned. She shifted much of her great-world itch (not all of it) to Joe, certain he would rise to become a renowned theologian. He attracted attention as a liberation missionary in El Salvador, but returned to spend dreary decades at a Jesuit high school. Although his scholarly love was poetry, his superiors had him teach math. It was further reproof for a brief affair when, just out of the seminary, he'd burned -- like some other young priests -- with 60's boundlessness.
Gemma, as a child in a drab household, idolized Bel from the moment she saw her neighbor's name in a fan magazine's where-are-they-now series. Growing up, she warmed herself at Bel's deliberately banked fire, lured by the sparks and an occasional truant flame that flickered beneath her mentor's resolute domesticity and Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Given a box camera, Gemma began to take pictures; grown up, she traveled the world as a famous photographer. The imprint of Bel's silent-film glamour haunted Gemma's choice of a different silent language. Now, though, with celebrity choking her, she has returned to record their shabby Rhode Island town before gentrification sets in.
Rita, stodgy and stout, the swan's daughter turned ugly duckling, nourished flight plans all along. A physical therapist, she treated the dying wife of a union mobster, and became his lover. Now, with her mother dead, she ascends into a reductio ad absurdum of the celebrity culture. Joining him in the witness protection program after he rats out his bosses, she begins a pseudonymous life in a California hideaway. But even she, after a comically absurd imbroglio, will subside back into the humbler world of real names.
Because all celebrity -- Bel's, Joe's, Gemma's and Rita's inverted version -- is pseudonymous. Thus the inciting theme that flows through Howard's complex, sometimes difficult narrative. If it doesn't always float us, it provides an incentive to portage past the rocky parts. Mainly they result from the author's choice to tell so much of the story in the past. Although some great fiction is written that way -- ''Moby-Dick,'' for instance -- it needs the illusion that we are there too, and moving forward through the action. Howard's triple-time -- past, present, future -- tends to fracture the illusion.
Then there are the gorgeous webs of reflection and connection she weaves around her characters and their times. True, they can hamper movement, but putting aside the sweep of Howard's theme, which alone would make ''Silver Screen'' a work of desolate illumination, they add a whole store of individual discoveries. Take one example: the long grayness of Joe's life as a priest whose faith was not much more than young ardor, soon lost. Just before dying, Bel calls for him. She, who once pushed his vocation, has achieved the doubled-back vision, the doubt beyond certitude, that charges Howard's characters with such complexity.
At the end of a long monologue, spoken from the grave, Bel renounces as futile the vicarious celebrity she'd decided on for her son after renouncing her own. And she suggests -- it is Howard's own distinguished style of heartbreak -- the futility even of renunciations:
''I stood at the open window. Joe was not safe walking down the lane for his morning exercise, though he might be praying. Or not praying at all to accomplish God's will as a pilgrim. Knowing my son is through with the bribe of heaven, I called him back, 'Jo-ee, Jo-ee.' My final words wasted.''