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This Gorgeous Game
This Gorgeous Game
Donna Freitas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), 2010
224 pp., 16.99

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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

This Gorgeous Game

The title of this teen novel by Donna Freitas comes from the journals of Thomas Merton, several extracts from which serve as epigraphs in the course of the book. Here is the first, which precedes the main text and sets the stage for all that follows:

I simply have no business being [in] love and playing around with a girl, however innocently … After all I am supposed to be a monk with a vow of chastity and though I have kept my vow—I wonder if I can keep it indefinitely and still play this gorgeous game!

Freitas is assistant professor of religion at Boston University. Her books include Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses and a study of Philip Pullman. Her first YA novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood, was published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This Gorgeous Game centers on Olivia Peters, who is completing her junior year at a Catholic high school in Boston as the book begins. Olivia, who narrates her own story, is both exceptionally bright and beautiful. She learns at the outset that she is the winner of the First Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize, endowed and personally chosen by Father Mark Brendan, a Catholic priest—fiftyish, handsome and charismatic—who is himself a bestselling novelist. Along with a scholarship, the prize gives Olivia a coveted spot in Father Mark's summer fiction seminar at Holy Mary University, where her sister, Greenie, is a junior.

Even without the framing provided by the Merton epigraphs, it would be immediately apparent to the reader that something is seriously wrong with Father Mark. He positively oozes narcissism, and soon his interest in Olivia is revealed as both selfish and obsessive. Olivia herself is much slower to acknowledge the meaning of the warning signals she's picking up, and that hesitation is entirely plausible, especially since her affectionate and close-knit family (her father walked out ten years earlier) is not merely Catholic but devoutly so.

The unfolding narrative juxtaposes Father Mark's increasingly creepy wooing and stalking of Olivia with a counterplot involving her romance with Jamie, a student at HMU whom she meets on her first visit to the campus: a budding relationship that depends on mutual attraction and regard. Serving as a chorus of sorts are Olivia's charming and loyal friends, Ashley and Jada.

Father Mark presses on Olivia a story he's written, titled "This Gorgeous Game," and demands that she read it. She keeps putting it off, but finally forces herself to look at it. The "story," she realizes, is both an account of their relationship from his viewpoint and a "proposition." It sickens her, yet it also gives her the resolution, finally, to tell her circle of loved ones—all of them concerned for her, wondering what's amiss—about her ordeal, to show them the emails and text messages and unopened letters, to bring Father Mark to account. And it impels her to tell the story herself—the book we are just finishing.

In many respects, This Gorgeous Game serves as a corrective to the stereotypical picture of "youth culture" that we've been given in countless forms over the last decade and more. But it does something else: It values moral clarity over a recognition of moral complexity. The characters are simply drawn—and this isn't a mistake on the part of the author, it's a choice. Like all authorial choices—like all choices, period—it entails tradeoffs. We don't fault John Bunyan (unless we are idiots) because the characters in The Pilgrim's Progress lack the complexity of the characters in War and Peace. Bunyan and Tolstoy were doing different things.

Olivia is innocent—a young woman of flesh and blood, not an impossibly saintly figure, but as close to perfect as you will encounter in any novel you read this year. Father Mark is a predator. Their story is told in part to help readers who might find themselves in situations similar to hers—to seek help more quickly, if possible, and if not, to recognize where the blame lies, to reject attempts to blame the victim. Like International Justice Mission, highlighted in Amy Sherman's cover story in this issue, this novel unapologetically makes its case.

To say that this particular book values moral clarity over a recognition of moral complexity is not to say that we are forced to choose once and for all between one or the other. Nor is it to suggest that Donna Freitas is urging such a choice. Hardly. But it should make us reflect on when we ourselves acknowledge (or dispute) the claims of moral clarity.

And there is one important respect in which my account of the novel so far is perhaps misleading. Olivia is portrayed as both sharing and yet not quite sharing the faith of her mother and sister and their larger community. Exhausted to the point of collapse by Father Mark's pursuit, she finds herself in church, crying out "Why me?" to a God who doesn't seem to hear:

I try to imagine what I've been told all my life is real, that God loved us enough to become human, to be closer to us, to walk among us. That a Catholic priest stands for this God-become-human among the faithful and is treated like God come down from heaven by them, too. By us. By me. Ever since I was a little girl.
Though I don't know that I can count myself among them anymore. The thought of losing this faith, my place in this church that has been with me and everyone I love all my life, feels like facing an earthquake, one that might swallow me into the ground.

Later, near the very end of her story, after she has reached out for help and has been lifted up by those she loves, she reflects on faith again:

I've never been able to give myself over completely, in that I surrender to you, God sort of way people talk about, that Mom and Greenie talk about as if it's something they do every day. I've thought before how this must be what taking a leap of faith really is. Faith is letting yourself fall and believing, knowing that someone, something, this being we call God is waiting there to catch us in a big, soft, God-sized baseball mitt.
I've never had that kind of faith of before.
But I have faith in the people that surround me now, and I know, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will catch me if I let myself fall. I know. And so I do. I let myself fall.
When I wake, everyone is still here. All of them.

What Olivia experiences, after a nightmarish period in which she has felt increasingly isolated, is that she "no longer [has] to carry this burden alone."

I've read this passage several times, and sometimes I read it one way, and sometimes I read it another way. Read one way, it seems to be suggesting that, through her faith in the trustworthy people who surround her—people who will not betray her, as Father Mark did—she can have faith in God, faith with a degree of assurance that has until now eluded her. Read another way, it brackets out for the time being the question of faith in God, neither affirming nor denying it, and settles for the moment on human trust. I go back and forth, though when I look at the last page of the book, when Olivia meets Jamie at their favorite place, in the Public Garden, I incline to the latter: "He is real. This is real …. And I am so grateful. I am so grateful as he walks me home, holding my hand, because that is all I need right now."

Where the drama of Father Mark plays out as foreseen from the very beginning, the question of faith remains open for Olivia, I think, and keeps the novel from ending the way a hinged box snaps shut. Coming to think of her as a person, as we tend to do when a book has absorbed us—a person with a life beyond the confines of the page—I hope that God will use the sweet but imperfect love between Olivia and Jamie, and Jamie's steady faith, to draw her to the source of all our true loves.

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