You know a book is bad when you put it down and it sits on your bedside table untouched for days on end; when you are able to go to work, watch TV, surf the internet without wondering what will happen next and cursing whichever essential daily activity is preventing you from finding out. That’s the lack of urgency I experienced while reading The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn.
The tale of a fourteen year old girl who becomes the center of a media circus after being hailed as the Virgin Mary incarnate, from page one I had the feeling I’d read this story before. And I had, back in 2002 when I picked up a copy of Jodi Picoult’s moderately well written escapist novel Keeping Faith, also about a young girl who finds herself at the center of a media circus due to her unconventional relationship with God. The two books contain many of the same stock characters: the protective yet distant single mom, the handsome investigator, the crazy true believer. I will say though that Picoult’s take is far more original and realistic then Hallowell’s.
The biggest problem with this book is that Hallowell doesn’t seem to have taken the time to get to know her characters. They all lack the depth necessary to engage a reader. Francesca is just a fourteen year old girl who plays the cello. Her mother, Anna, is just a paleobotonist and single mom. Chester, the homeless man who first recognizes Francesca as the Virgin Mary, is just a homeless schizophrenic. They don’t have pasts or interior lives. They do not carry any unexpressed thoughts or emotions around with them, nor do they restrain themselves from acting. They are born of the broadest brushstrokes and are in dire need of detailing. A well developed character never arrives at the final page unchanged and it is the desire to witness change that drives the reader forward. Shallow characters are unfulfilling precisely because they do not experience the world in any meaningful way, and desire to follow such individuals all the way to the end of a novel diminishes quickly.
This lack of characterization leads Hallowell to make some counter intuitive and seemingly contradictory decisions regarding their relationships with one another. For example, I found it difficult to understand why Francesca’s frightened and protective mother Anna gladly allowed the homeless man who first declared her daughter the Virgin Mary to sleep in her front yard and even felt relief that he stood guard at their front gate, keeping all the other crazies away. I’d think a mother as fiercely protective of her child as Anna would have called the cops and had him arrested for trespassing. Another example comes when Francesca decides to quit playing the cello. Both Francesca and Anna avoid telling her absentee father about it because he will be furious if he finds out. Now, in my experience with absent fathers I’ve found that most don’t care enough about what their children are doing to get furious about anything. That’s why they’re absent. Dad’s who care if their kid plays the cello are involved. In a novel that is meant to be realistic, the behavior of Hallowell’s characters is entirely unrealistic. It’s obvious these questionable choices were written to advance the plot. Character development, continuity, logic, and realism were not taken into account. It’s the sort of mistake you’d expect from the pen of a junior high school student still utterly clueless as to how the world works and how adults behave within in.
As far as craft, Hallowell isn’t a bad writer. She’s not a good one either. Her prose are mediocre; they do little more than tell the story. There is no flare, no inspiration. They are as flat as the novel’s protagonists. Also, the pacing of the book is much too slow. There were many chapters that read like filler, bogging down the text rather than enhancing it.
Perhaps most grievous of all, Hallowell doesn’t even delve into the religious themes and questions inherent in the story. She could have said so much about celebrity, consumerism, capitalism, criminality, desire, belief, and faith. Instead, she sticks to the most generic of morals: enjoy the simple things in life. Live in the moment. Not a bad moral, just trite and contrived, and definitely a throw away ending considering the many intense ones she could have written.
When my brother the theatre critic comes home from a bad show one of the very first criticisms he throws out is that the writer “didn’t listen to her story” meaning they forced the show to go in a direction it didn’t seem to be naturally headed toward. Hallowell wasn’t listening when she wrote The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. She did not listen to her characters who were practically screaming for development. Because she wasn’t listening she made the characters act in nonsensical ways. She did not stop to think that maybe the moral she was gunning for wasn’t the moral the story actually wanted to have attached to it. Hallowell should have gone back to the drawing board, or at very least a workshop.