Desire gets a bad rap, and not just from prudes. Buddhists, for instance, come out pretty firmly against it (desire, they say, is the root of suffering), and even atheists like me are susceptible to the wisdom of the Buddha. But Jamie Quatro sees it differently. Maggie, the protagonist and intermittent narrator of Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon, wants to want. Her desire is what makes her human and also what connects her to something larger, something she insists on calling God.
Those who have read Quatro’s first book will recognize the theme of desire. I Want to Show You More, a collection of stories, was handsomely blurbed and ecstatically reviewed, and—perhaps most telling of all—was one of those books that get fervently passed from writer to writer. Among other enticements, it featured a series of lambently honest, somewhat otherworldly treatments of adultery. The stories exerted an urgent tug as I read—they created a beating, hot, weird heart at the center of the collection. As James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, “The stories about adultery make a book-within-a-book.”
In Fire Sermon, Quatro places all her chips on that book-within-a-book. Maggie is a writer and a mother, raised as a strict Christian, who falls in love with a man who is not her husband. “This story begins where others end,” Quatro writes. “A boy and a girl in love, a wedding, a happily-ever-after.” And then what? Two children, two careers, a few moves, and a couple of decades later, the wife discovers that she wants—well, what, exactly? Maybe she just wants. Full disclosure: Quatro blurbed my recent memoir, Love and Trouble. Fuller disclosure: Quatro and I hoe the same occasionally dolorous row of female midlife yearning. The wanting to want, the insistent shoulder-tapping of desire—these things seized me in my mid-40s, and so I expected to be a sitting duck for Quatro’s all-in take on the theme.