In the Company of Others: A Father Tim Novel
Viking Penguin, 2010
399 pp., $27.95
After delivering what she insisted was the last volume of the Mitford novels (Light from Heaven, 2005), Jan Karon started a new trilogy of novels about her beloved protagonist, Father Tim Kavanaugh. He's now retired, free to roam far from Mitford. In the first Father Tim novel, Home to Holly Springs, he returned to his boyhood stomping grounds in Mississippi. In Karon's newest novel, In the Company of Others, coming in October, Tim and his wife, Cynthia, travel to Ireland. They are meant to have a whirlwind tour with Tim's cousins, but when Cynthia busts up her ankle, the couple finds themselves marooned at an inn run by Liam and Anna Conor.
Cynthia, it turns out, is thrilled to stay put: she very quickly falls in love with the innkeepers and their family, and the other guests and locals she encounters at the inn. She becomes particularly attached to a diffident young woman named Bella, who, Cynthia believes, needs some good loving. For his part, Father Tim gives sage marital advice to one of his new acquaintances. While all this counsel and care is going on, the Kavanaughs find time to read the journal of a 19th-century physician (long sections of which are spliced into the novel), quote poems to each other, and marvel on the nuptial bliss they found relatively late in life.
Karon has said that readers have been "mixed" about her leaving Mitford, about the introduction of all these new characters: "Some wanted me to stick strictly with Mitford. Many of my readers don't want Father Tim to have an authentic life. They want him to just do one thing, and it's formulaic, to stay right where he was. They don't want anything to change …. In other words, they want a stagnant and unrealistic life. What I've tried so hard to do is to give my readers an authentic life with an authentic ordinary man living an ordinary life."
I'm not sure I am fundamentally interested in a stagnant life, but I must admit that I miss Mitford. I'll read just about anything Karon writes, and I'm already looking forward to the third Father Tim novel (Karon says it will be set in an English village), but I don't feel particularly invested in the (not exactly un-formulaic) dramas of the Conors and the other folks Tim and Cynthia encounter in Ireland. Reading In the Company of Others, I was happiest when Fr. Tim got a phone call or email from someone in Mitford. I can't help hoping that maybe, after Father Tim visits England, Karon might be persuaded to give us one more Mitford novel, depicting Father Tim's return home after all his globetrotting.
Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. For the academic year 2010-11, she is a visiting fellow at Yale's Institute for Sacred Music. Her book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia is coming soon from Yale University Press.
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