At first glance, the Tobiases of the Gulf Coast of Florida could
pass for the quintessential American family: breadwinning dad Cal,
who runs tour and fishing boats; mom Chloe, who restores art when
she has the time; college student son Marshall, seeking the meaning
of life; and adolescent daughter Meghan.
But Chloe’s (and thus the family’s) life and
attention revolve around Meghan, whose potentially deadly food
allergies demand constant vigilance and dwarf other problems and
concerns. Chloe lives in a daily state of dread, worried about what
could happen to Meghan.
And then her worst fears come true.
For Marshall not only lusts after God, he also lusts after the
beautiful and mysterious Ada Sparks, whom he brings home for a
visit. As Ada is something of a religious zealot, Marshall can
indulge both his lusts simultaneously and still feel good about
But like most lustful young men, he easily loses his backbone as
he watches Ada, out to prove a point, feed an allergen to Meghan.
God doesn’t intervene: Meghan falls into a coma, Marshall and
Ada go on the lam, and the resulting tension exposes all the cracks
in Chloe and Cal’s marriage.
Just another day at the Florida beach this is not.
It is, however, a great read, structured into the first-person
story of Chloe, as she navigates through this family disaster, and
the third-person story of Marshall, as he instigates and then
attempts to right it. Orbiting around mother and son are Cal, who
tries to create some semblance of a normal life even as Meghan lies
unresponsive in a hospital bed; Meghan, who dominates the family
even when comatose; and Grandma Tobias, the harsh religious fanatic
whom Cal rejected as a mother long ago.
In MATTERS OF FAITH, Marshall instigates the action, but Chloe
provides the insight. Marshall searches for a religious awakening,
and much of the book revolves around the hope for Meghan’s
literal awakening. But Chloe is the one who wakes up: coping with
crisis opens her eyes to the true nature of the people around her
and the dynamics of her family.
She comes to realize that, although she is a talented and
accomplished restorer of paintings, it is Cal’s steady,
uncomplaining daily work that keeps the family afloat and allows
her to devote herself to Meghan and pursue her “career”
as more of a hobby. Eventually Chloe begins to re-evaluate her
mate, her marriage and herself; even seemingly unrelated
occurrences, like a visit from the police, set her musing:
“I’d imagined that I was the warmer partner when I
had been in college and Cal and I had met, the more intelligent,
the more desirable friend. But when we’d moved here, it had
been made clear that Cal was the preferred half of the couple,
including, no especially with the women. I was not to be
trusted, and it took a long time for me to realize that I was the
one seen as cold, distant, self-absorbed.”
Similarly, Chloe’s vision of herself as fierce Mama Bear
undergoes a transformation. She is fiercely protective not only of
the fragile Meghan but also of the miscreant Marshall --- her
husband’s anger at Marshall and insistence he take
responsibility for hurting Meghan drive Chloe deeper away from her
husband, and, she knows, “when Marshall realized he was out
of his depth, I would be the one he came to.”
Yet Marshall first seeks out his crazy-like-a-fox grandmother
--- admittedly out of necessity --- when he is on the run. And when
he decides to come back and face his problems, it is Cal, not
Chloe, who he dials.
Kristy Kiernan’s book isn’t perfect. There are some
disturbing extraneous elements that go nowhere --- such as
Chloe’s interactions with the ER doctor who fingers Marshall
to the police --- and a confusing foray into Ada’s background
and an FBI hunt for her. But these are minor problems in a
thoughtful and lyrical account of one woman’s coming to terms
with her life, and herself. Kiernan doesn’t flinch at the
end; there is no fairy tale happily-ever-after.
Yet we are left with hope as the members of the Tobias family
come out of a tragic situation with the compassion and desire to
work their way back to each other.
Which, in the end, is what families, and faith, are about.
Reviewed by Pat Morris on January 6, 2011
Matters of Faith