The Edge of Sadness, by Edwin O’Connor, is (per my most recent ranking) my 17th favourite novel of all time, and one which I was very happy to reread. It’s proof that sometimes the Goodreads algorithm is wonderful: it recommended it to me “because you liked Gilead by Marilynne Robinson” – but fewer than 3000 people have rated it on Goodreads, compared to the 78000+ who have rated the latter, so I don’t really know where the recommendation came from. It’s been out of print for decades, so I originally hunted it down through my interlibrary loans system (and spilt something on it, and had to apologise shamefaced when I returned it). I loved it. It’s a hopeful, thoughtful novel, which I encountered at a time in my life when I was low and which buoyed me considerably. I’ve thought about it regularly ever since, and just before lockdown started I decided I wanted to reread it. Most copies online go for upwards of £100, but I finally managed to find an affordable ex-library copy in California. With impeccable timing, it arrived in April as I was starting to really lose it from being alone all the time, and I’ve rarely been so pleased to get post. All this is to say that The Edge of Sadness is extremely precious to me, so you know going into this review that it has no objectivity. It did win the Pulitzer, though, so someone else agrees with me.
It is probably best described as a psychological mystery, though more psychological than mystery. The mystery is this: why has Charlie Carmody, the aged and successful patriarch of a sprawling Irish American family, suddenly started inviting Father Hugh Kennedy round for dinner? Hugh is the main character of the book. He’s a middle-aged Catholic priest, a recovered alcoholic, and the lifelong friend of Charlie’s son John, also a priest. Hugh grew up in and used to pastor a busy, tight-knit Irish community elsewhere in the city. However, following a drinking problem and some time away in recovery, he has been moved to a small, faded, poor, largely immigrant parish, quite a way away from St Raymond’s, where Charlie and John live. I don’t have a good sense of the geography of Boston* even in 2020, let alone the 1950s, so I couldn’t guess where “Old Saint Paul’s” is meant to be. It’s seen by people as a demotion, but Hugh loves his new parish, even as he finds it hard to connect with people who don’t speak his language. He’s helped in his work by a young curate, who is introduced delightfully as:
Father Danowski, solemn, chunky, broad-faced, butter-haired, and twenty-five, looking like some impossibly grave fullback… there are times when he reminds me of nothing so much as a child who has sneaked into a full-dress suit, just to startle the grown-ups.
Father Danowski is unquestionably one of the best things about the book. He is introduced as comic relief, and certainly a lot of the humour in the novel is prompted by his funny patterns of communication and intense formality. As the novel progresses, though, we see Father Danowski’s kindness and enthusiasm and love of the parishioners – he is awkward and socially perhaps a bit inept, but a very good man. In many respects, I think Father Danowski is the heart of the novel, and I enjoyed getting reacquainted with him on my reread. I don’t want to go into too much more detail about him, because getting to know Father Danowski (and learning about him as Hugh does) is one of the pleasures of The Edge of Sadness.
This is a very Catholic novel – more than any I’ve ever read, except Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (which I also love). O’Connor is much more hopeful than Greene, and in stark contrast to the latter’s work, this novel suggests grace, mercy, and a love of God and others. I’m a Protestant, but I went to a Catholic primary school, and I appreciated having my viewpoint challenged. I’ve always thought of the rituals and traditions of Catholicism as an unhelpful barrier to entry for an “outsider” – for people who don’t know when to stand or sit, or what the proper answer in a call-and-response is. Reading this didn’t do away with those feelings. However, it did make me see those rituals in a somewhat different light. Hugh speaks limited Spanish, and his congregation speak limited English – and only a very gifted man could learn the combination of Mandarin, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic, and Spanish he would need to truly communicate with his whole congregation. The shared rituals and traditions of Catholicism provide an answer to that, a common language. They allow for Hugh’s diverse congregation to gather and worship together – they do not understand a word of what he says in his sermon, but when he is leading them in the Mass, they join in happily, knowing they are worshipping the same God they worshipped in the churches they have left in every corner of the world.
Despite the fact that this is a novel deeply concerned with Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, I think it would be just as enjoyable for someone of a different faith or none. The writing is gorgeous, and the relationships between the characters are fascinating. The catalyst for the action in the novel is that Hugh receives a phone call early one morning from Charlie Carmody, inviting him to his birthday party – out of the blue entirely, since they were never close and haven’t seen each other in years. Hugh has studiously avoided entering the parish where Charlie lives for years, as he thinks his previous drinking problem has probably become common knowledge and the idea of facing those old familiar faces is unbearable. He agrees, though, and over the course of the novel, he has to face up to his past. His friendships with two of Charlie’s children, Helen and John, date back to childhood. Because of the longevity and previous closeness of the friendships, there is a place for great honesty on everyone’s part – which is both helpful and painful as Hugh finally renews his connection with them. Honestly, I think this book has some of my favourite friendships I’ve ever come across in fiction. By virtue of so many characters being priests, there is essentially no romance in this book, so the friendships receive the care and development from the author that would normally only be lavished on a romantic pairing. This is one of the things I love most about it.
It’s probably worth noting that this is set in the late 50s or early 60s in the US, and some of the language around “foreignness” reflects that – particularly in relation to Polish and Italian communities. It doesn’t really come from Hugh, Helen, or John – but among Charlie Carmody and his friends, and in some comments from the other priests. I think this novel is actually great at challenging assumptions about race and ethnicity – in particular, challenging both its readers and its characters on what a Christian looks and sounds like – but it doesn’t shy away from depicting the kind of casual racism and xenophobia that would have existed in largely homogeneous American communities in the 1950s. Nor, in my view, should it shy away from that type of thing – it’s presumably an accurate representation of that time and place – but it is there, and threaded throughout the novel.
There is so much more that I could say about The Edge of Sadness: the picture Hugh builds up of the garrulous yet enigmatic Charlie, composed of the anecdotes and comments of all the people around him, and the way that shifts over the course of the story – it’s so wonderfully done. And the humour! This book is far funnier than any book with such a gloomy title has any right to be. You get a wonderful sense of the different parishes, and the city in general – it really feels like you are being immersed in the time and place. There’s also such satisfaction when the mystery is finally solved, even though you’ve half forgotten there’s a mystery at all because you’re caught up in everything else. Really, though, what I want to say is: please read it if it appeals at all (and you can track it down), because I’ve never met anyone who’s read this, and I would love to hear what people think!
*The city’s never actually named, but reviewers seem to think it’s Boston.