It can’t be easy to write compellingly about a bland, introverted lead character. You have no colorful personal details to parcel out, and you can’t make her dialogue into intriguing self-projections, since she has no social life. And you can only depict her as “mysterious” so many times before it starts to ring hollow. A bland character is often doomed to be a bland read.
But, in his new novel “Vatican Waltz,” Massachusetts author Roland Merullo manages to create a surprisingly absorbing portrayal of such a woman. Cynthia Piantedosi is unerringly likable and honorable, a dutiful daughter in her early 20s who lives with her brusque father in Revere, Merullo’s familiar turf from his Revere Beach trilogy. She is a devout Catholic who attends Mass, has a strong bond with her parish priest, Father Alberto, and seems to have no friends.
As the meditative narrator of “Vatican Waltz,” she clearly knows she’s average, referring to herself as “a Revere girl, plain as a tree trunk in all respects.” Even her metaphors are run of the mill.
But then Merullo places his heroine into a fascinating situation, as she begins to feel that she’s being called by God to become the first female Catholic priest. And the novel becomes not just a portrait of a quiet woman, but of a troubled institution at a historical crossroads. Cynthia’s awakening aspirations coincide with the closing of churches and the waning of trust in the wake of the priest child-abuse scandals.
As a child, Cynthia explains, she’d had what she calls “spells”: “I’d feel like I was being carried away on an internal wind, a kite lifting up, rocking and tilting and sailing happily there out of reach of the everyday world.” As a teenager, after the death of the beloved grandmother who’d helped raise her after her mother died, her spells intensified and became more transporting. Finally, the somewhat unconventional Father Alberto encourages her to pursue her vision despite the inevitable resistance: “[H]e said his intimations told him my true calling would bring me great difficulty.”
So at 22, Cynthia begins to meet with power brokers in the Catholic Church to explain her mission and ask for guidance. She starts her climb in Boston and, ultimately, takes her first-ever plane flight to Rome to meet with the dismissive Cardinal Rosario. Along the way, Merullo skillfully turns her into a mirror of the complex and arrested world of church traditionalists, literalists, and self-preservationists — all of whom, of course, are men.
“Vatican Waltz” starts off a little claustrophobically. Cynthia’s early narration is smoothly written by Merullo, as she describes her youth and her interior world, but she seems to exist solely on a spiritual level. Her daily life is so vague that when she incidentally mentions having had dinner with fellow students while in nursing school or having been on a date with a man, it’s jarring. We didn’t know she ever engaged with anyone outside of her father and her priest.
But as “Vatican Waltz” opens out from Cynthia’s Revere days into a charged look at how the church refuses to greet a potential miracle knocking at its door, it grows more exciting. “I just feel that my Church is dying,” she says to Rosario during their strained meeting, “and I believe that, in the depth of my prayer, Christ is asking me to help keep it alive.”
When Cynthia is in Italy dealing with church heavies such as Rosario, the novel takes off. She’s still “plain as a tree trunk,” if somewhat more assertive; but she is now a catalyst for compelling questions about Catholicism and the church.
Where does her dance end? Ultimately, what kind of novel about the church is “Vatican Waltz” — realistic, fantastical, hopeful, angry, evasive? Merullo gives Cynthia’s story an unexpected and thought-provoking turn that answers that question in no uncertain terms.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.