The Book of Mercy is a novel in which each member of a family tries to deal, in individually idiosyncratic ways, with his or her abandonment, as a family and as individuals, by their wife/mother.


This is an interesting first novel that depicts the radically--or are they?--different ways in which a husband, son and daughter attempt to resolve the psychic damage that Fanny, their incredibly charismatic, manipulative and selfish wife and mother, visits on them when she abandons the family. When Anne is about ten months old and Paul approximately six, Fanny begins the first of increasingly long absences from her family.

Her husband, Edmund Mueller, is a fireman and master woodcarver of saints and a very likable man--he is physically strong, shy, sensitive, intensely loyal and a wonderful eccentric. After his children, whom he raises by himself, grow up, he meets Lucy, a psychic who is probably the reason Edmund devotes his post-retirement years to the very serious belief in and practice of alchemy. Paul becomes a priest to third world parishes and Anne, a psychiatrist. It would be unfair to readers of this review to divulge more about the later events in the life of either child's adult life.

The story has several devices to narrate events. Anne is the only truly first person narrator. An omniscient narrator chronicles Paul's and Edmund's lives, except for passages in which Edmund is describing his life to a psychiatrist in the institution in which we find him on page one. There is also the first person voice of Paul in his letters to Anne. The shifting in narrative voice works better than its description.

This book has two strengths for literature and medicine audiences. First it offers some interesting insights into the personal turmoil that one can endure during medical school and residency (Anne becomes a single parent in medical school). Although Ms. Cambor has not attended medical school or done a psychiatry residency, her descriptions of these periods in Anne's life ring true to me. More importantly, it also presents a rich comparison between one's choice of alchemy or the priesthood or psychiatry as life choices to mend the wounds of an early spousal/parental abandonment.

It is interesting to note, in this regard, that the Library of Congress classification includes, as key words for this book, “middle aged men,” “psychology,” “obsession” and “alchemy”. Although this is fair enough, it does but a pale sort of justice to the fertile discussion that can ensue when one analyzes how and why members of a family react radically differently to the same emotional trauma and what the differences are among material magic (alchemy), soul magic (religion) and mind magic (psychiatry)--both for the workers of the magic and the objects of its attention.

Although one would have liked to read a prolonged passage late in the book involving a discussion between Anne and Paul about their respective choices in dealing with the same childhood trauma, and their comparisons between the relative success with which the priesthood and psychiatry--both lives of service--have helped resolve such trauma, this is nonetheless an interesting study in comparisons. It would be especially useful for a literature and medicine class to discuss The Book of Mercy--and the role of mercy in the healing professions--with a psychiatrist and priest who have read it in attendance.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York