Follow Here To Purchase The Variations: A Novel

Author: John Donatich,

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9438-1

Someone once said that as Christians we stand at the intersection of suffering and hope. The Variations, John Donatich’s compelling first novel, is about suffering, about doubt, about loss, but it is also about love, and, most important of all, it is about hope.

John Donatich is the director of Yale University Press,and his essays and occasional pieces have appeared in Harper’s and in The Atlantic Monthly; he is also author of Ambivalence, A Love Story: Portrait of a Marriage published in 2005. In The Variations, he has created a meditation on human existence.

Reality for Father Dominic of Our Lady of Fatima Church in New Haven, NY, the central character of The Variations, reveals itself not only in the crumbling church buildings, in his dwindling congregation, in the death of his colleague, Father Carl, but also in his own spiritual malaise. Prayer no longer comforts or guides him, and the once strong confidence with which he has always influenced the members of his flock is greatly diminished. Father Dominic has lost his faith. “Woe to him who would not be true....Woe to him who while preaching to others is himself a castaway,” writes  the Apostle Paul to the wayward people of Corinth, and Father Dominic suffers deeply from this same self-knowledge. Father Dominic’s problem is made worse by the fact that he cares; he is a good priest.

He wants to save his church not for himself but for his congregation, some of whom have worshiped at Our Lady of Fatima all their lives as did their parents, and in some cases their grandparents. His Bishop feels otherwise and announces coldly that the church is scheduled to close, whispering slyly in Dominic’s ear that the empty pews might be due not only to the times but to Father Dominic’s priestly shortcomings, a certain social remoteness, a tendency to isolate himself from his flock, and, perhaps, too much solitary drinking. It is not that Dominic is unaware of his faults; his dilemma is how to cope with his personal crisis and at the same time care for those for whom he is spiritually responsible. 

There is Dolores, the sixteen year old lost soul, grieving following the loss of Father Carl, her mentor, a girl harbouring suicidal tendencies and threatened by an disparaging brother; there is Signora Rosa Lotito, a former pianist of some promise whose career was cut short by an abusive husband; there is James, her pupil, an African American classical pianist, “ ... too white to be black, too black to be white...”, preparing Bach’s Goldberg Variations for an important recital, and finally Andrea, Rosa’s daughter ,an editor for an upscale New York magazine, and single parent of 10 year old Ella.

What makes this novel unique and impressively enjoyable is its structure, the use of a single musical trope which gives voice to the work’s entirety. The Goldberg Variations, a composition for harpsichord written by Bach in 1741, is used in this story by James in his musical preparation, but also the work forms the structure upon which the whole story unfolds  This musical composition consists of an aria( a melodic pattern ,usually for singing,)  and a set of 30 musical variations on a  theme which is repeated in altered form; this is the plot’s central metaphor; hence, the theme of the novel’s aria is loss, and what follows is a series of variations on this theme.

Finally, what makes this a worthy novel? First, we can identify not only with Father Dominic but with others in the cast of ordinary people who play out their lives in the faltering parish of Our Lady of Fatima.  It would not be untoward of us to agree with Henry David Thoreau that we do, many of us, live lives of quiet desperation, and were it not for a certain inherent hopefulness in most of us we would not survive. Often just when things look bleakest, the clouds break and the light shines through. Thus it is in this novel, and thus it probably was when T.S. Eliot wrote that: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

We can only hope that Mr. Donatich has taken this quotation to heart and is hard at work on his next novel.

Follow Here To Purchase The Variations: A Novel