Agatha of Little Neon, by Claire Luchette, is a curious and thoughtful book. It is one of the most unusual books about the loss of faith that I’ve ever read because the titular character doesn’t lose her faith in god; instead she loses her faith in the church that ordered her days and explained all mysteries. Nearly all of the books I’ve read about loss of faith have characters who find peace in agnosticism or atheism. Some of them are angry books. Most of them are melancholy. Agatha of Little Neon is sometimes angry and sometimes melancholy, but there is a strange feeling of hope as Agatha learns to find her way in the world.
Agatha joined her order when she was a young woman. She had a lot of faith, although I don’t know if I’d say she was called to be a nun. Agatha’s memories showed me a young woman who was confused by the world. The Catholic Church gave her structure and answers. It gave her Sister Roberta, a surrogate mother. It gave her Sisters Frances, Therese, and Mary Lucille to be her friends. Agatha might have been content to be a nun forever in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania. She might have managed it a couple of decades ago. But in the early 2000s, the Catholic Church was under siege as its secrets about child abuse could no longer be swept under the rug. The Church’s money problems (some caused by payouts to survivors) mean that Agatha and her Sisters have to relocate to Little Neon, a halfway house in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, while Sister Roberta is forcibly retired.
The move—and Agatha’s surprise job as a math teacher at a religious school in Woonsocket—is a catalyst for Agatha to start asking questions. Her Sisters stay at Little Neon while Agatha leaves every day. The separation gives her space to notice all misogynist unfairness around her. There’s the way that the principal of the school polices the students’ (all girls) appearance and forbids any lesbian exploration. Then there’s the way that Agatha’s mother wasn’t allowed to keep an IUD even though another pregnancy could kill her (and it did). And there’s the way that Sister Roberta, a wise but though character, wasn’t allowed to become a priest just because of her sex. All of this starts to grate on Agatha’s belief in the Church…but not in god.
In addition to Agatha’s personal questioning, Agatha of Little Neon is a fascinating book about how rigidly adhering to rules made up centuries ago means that us imperfect humans are bound to fail. The addicts and the lonely at Little Neon have tons of rules they have to follow, but most of these rules are designed to make things easier for the people who run the house and not for the inhabitants to overcome their addictions. The rules that the girls have to follow at the school where Agatha teaches were made in knee-jerk response to an emergency without pausing for reflection. At the end of the book, Agatha makes big decisions about what rules to keep and which ones to jettison. Her decisions—and so many of the little moments in this book—ask us to think about the rules we choose to follow and whether there are some that are hurting us instead of helping. This would be a fantastic read for a book group.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.