`Priest' Chronicles a Long, Boring Trip
THE PRIEST FAINTED
By Catherine Temma Davidson
Henry Holt & Company
240 pages, $23
The Priest Fainted, Catherine Temma Davidson's first novel, is another one of those lovely stories dealing with women who travel to distant lands trying to escape their mothers, only to discover--surprise!--that their lives are more similar to their mother's than they thought. Davidson also attempts to weave cooking, Greek mythology and sexual awakening into her alinear story, which ultimately tumbles like the Tower of Babel under its heavy pedanticness. Davidson, a poet, should not quit her day job. Although the language of The Priest Fainted is eloquent enough, the alinearity simply gets tire-some, as do her pathetic attempts to compare herself--the reader can safely presume that the 19-year old narrator is a version of Davidson in disguise--to various Greek goddesses.
The main problems with this novel lie in the fact that Davidson does not know how to engage a reader. While Like Water For Chocolate, a book which Davidson has heavily imitated with her food-as-culture-and-identity-and-feminism theme, had charm and humor, as well as a concrete plot, the plot of The Priest Fainted can be summed up in one sentence: 19 year-old Greek-American girl travels to Greece, makes some friends, has adventurous sex and realizes why her mother decided not to marry a Greek man (because like all men, they, too, are pigs). Coherence and originality are not what one will find in The Priest Fainted. It is a scattered work, trying to draw upon too many cliched themes--cooking, identity searching, feminism, mother-daughter relationships, friendships, sexuality and great women of Greek mythology. The book ends up becoming a hodge-podge of leftovers and half-baked ideas that do not go as far as they could. It would have been much better if Davidson had focused on one aspect of the narrator's soul-fulfilling journey and stayed away from the food genre. It just does not work.
Davidson opens up the novel with women cooking the sensual, traditional Greek dish Iman Baildi, which in English means "the priest fainted," hence the title of this book. Although this sounds like a delicious food, its significance in the novel is never fully developed. In fact, the food genre is quickly dropped, which can confuse a reader who thought this novel would be about taking a culinary journey into Greece and getting some heart-to-heart searching along the way. Instead, the novel delves superficially into many "modern" themes and experiences, and the plot line--already thinner than a slice of processed American cheese--doesn't fare well under the pressure and eventually melts away altogether.
Of course, the entire novel is not completely meaningless. It is interesting to read about the narrator's adventures as she ponders the heavier questions of life, such as which men she should have sex with and when. No, really, there are some serious issues that are addressed in the book, but they are overshadowed by the dominance of superficiality--the great deal of time that the author spends living at a pensionaire full of international fashion models, the author's barhopping and picking up of various men, her obsession with a Greek basketball player who cruelly mistreats her, her rather interesting visit to a Greek gynecologist--all of these little adventures add up to next to nothing.
Throughout The Priest Fainted, we wonder how much the narrator really learns about herself. Her sojourn is so confused that her great waking moment seems to be when she ends her relationship with the Greek basketball player, who had been verbally and physically abusing her. Why she needed a trip to Greece and over a hundred pages to learn to stay away from abusive men is beyond the comprehension of most readers. Davidson herself seems to know that the narrator's soul-searching is not quite so deep, as when the narrator speaks about "the rubble of my year in Greece."
Yet, it is difficult to be touched by this novel. The narrator may get on the reader's nerves all or most of the time, but the true story of The Priest Fainted actually revolves around the narrator's mother, who travels back to Greece to meet her adolescent best friend and to spend time with her daughter. The best part of the book is when the narrator's mother and her best friend meet again after over thirty years, and are afraid to face each other because they do not want to part with the past, when they were young, beautiful and hopeful. Davidson's descriptions of the mother are well-crafted and sad without being overly cheesy or moralistic. The mother is "like a ghost come to life," when she arrives in Greece, and the narrator thinks "she [the mother] looks beautiful, as always. I have just begun to understand how a secret life can undermine what appears strong on the surface, the way water can eat the foundations of a rock until it becomes an empty cave." Both of these descriptions are toned down from Davidson's usual highly adjectival style, which becomes annoying after some time.
Davidson's first work is a good effort, and in future works, she will probably be able to cross the line between poetry and prose more gracefully. The Priest Fainted, for all its touching themes about the role mothers, daughters and women in general play in life--the book says next to nothing, and whose title is as random and empty as the novel itself.