I (Liz) recently started a book club. I have never been in a book club before, but it reminds me happily of literature classes (without the test at the end!). Luckily for you, I have decided to review the books we read on here, so you get to join the club vicariously! Hooray!
**Note: THIS REVIEW IS A SPOILER because the ending is the best part, and I can’t help but write about it. (Just skip the end of the plot summary)**
This month, we read Graham Greene’s 1951 novel, The End of the Affair.
3 out of 5 ain’t bad
The plot goes something like this: narrator Maurice Bendrix runs into his ex-lover’s husband Henry two years after his affair with Sarah, Henry’s wife, has ended. Henry tells Bendrix that he believes his wife is having an affair and that he’d considered hiring a private detective to investigate, but that he’s decided against it. Bendrix then visits the same private detective because he is jealous that Sarah has a new lover. The private detective gathers evidence that seems to convict Sarah and delivers Sarah’s diary to Bendrix. However, when Bendrix reads the diary, he discovers that Sarah still loves him. However, she feels she cannot be with him because of a vow she made. Once just before their affair had ended, they were in Bendrix’s apartment when a bomb exploded outside and killing him (this is in the middle of World War II). Sarah, in her panic, prayed that if God would save Bendrix’s life, she would never see him again. A minute later, Bendrix awakens to Sarah’s horror. Sarah is in agony over it, but it seems to have awakened in her a love for God. In any case, Bendrix, upon finishing his very interesting before-bed reading, tries to convince Sarah to run away with him. Sarah eventually concedes, and they make plans to run away together. Curiously, eight days pass without a word from Sarah. On the eighth day, Henry calls with the alarming news that Sarah has died of a severe chill. Yes, she dies of a bad cold. Henry then asks Bendrix to move in with him to help him make the funeral arrangements, and Bendrix moves in permanently. Then, all sorts of evidence comes out that Sarah is really Catholic: her mother tells Bendrix that Sarah was baptized Catholic when she was two, a priest tells him that she visited him and expressed her desire to become Catholic, and a little boy and man are healed of illness through what looks like a miracle done by the deceased Sarah. The book ends with Bendrix raging at God because God took Sarah from Bendrix and because God may exist.
Greene wrote himself in this novel. He had multiple affairs throughout his life, sometimes simultaneously, as was the case when he wrote The End of the Affair. Mysteriously, he dedicates this book to an unidentified “C.” I’ll leave you to make your own guesses about that.
And while the autobiographical notes are interesting, most fascinating is the play between love and hate of God. Throughout the novel, I felt I was watching the “Hound of Heaven” at work as He pursues Sarah, Bendrix, Henry, and really every other character in the novel.
Sarah struggles desperately with a God she did not believe existed until she witnesses a miracle: the seeming resurrection of Bendrix. Suddenly her life changes. Her prayer had been answered, and she cannot not explain it away. She begins meeting with Smythe, an anti-God anarchist street evangelist (if you know what I mean) in order to become indoctrinated into his anti-religion, but in fact, his teachings have the opposite effect. Smythe’s hatred toward God seems to prove God’s existence to Sarah, and she finds herself inexplicably drawn toward the Catholic church. She fills her diary with prayers. And at the book’s end, she confesses to Bendrix that she desires to become Catholic.
Yet near the book’s end, we learn that Sarah’s mother had her baptized in the Catholic church on a whim at the age of two. And though Sarah had disbelieved God all her conscious life, Graham Greene seems to make a case for the mystical and inescapable fact that baptism has made her God’s. She has been sealed.
I find this particularly meaningful. At a church service I once attended, a woman was called up to share her faith story. She told the congregation that she had been baptized at an early age by her mother into the Catholic Church. Yet from the moment she could rebel, she did. She lived a wild life, scorning God and her mother’s religion. Her mom prayed for her feverishly, and God continued to call her back to Him. And finally she broke. She couldn’t live the way she had been living and she stopped running and fell into the arms of love. She told us she wanted to reaffirm her faith vows and her life to Jesus through baptism, and I watched my priest sprinkle water on her head. Her mother sat in the front row snapping pictures. She and her mother and the whole congregation dabbed wet eyes, and I sat in the back just weeping along with them!
And though many things about this novel drove me crazy (Sarah’s unspecified illness, the narrator’s whiny voice, the slow first half…), this picture of a reckless God in pursuit of His sons and daughters made it a worthwhile read.