Mariette in Ecstasy (1991)

by Ron Hansen

A 17-year-old girl enters a convent in upstate New York in 1906 and quickly proves herself no ordinary postulant. Mariette Baptiste has trances during which she claims to hear Jesus, goes days without sleep, and inflicts injurious penances on herself. Finally, on Christmas Eve, when the reverend mother who is her blood sister dies, Mariette has bleeding wounds that may or may not be a bonafide stigmata.

This short novel by Ron Hansen is a look not just at religious "ecstasy" but also at its effect on others who have professed religious belief. While never definitely answering the question of whether Mariette is a saint or a fraud, Hansen describes the opposing sides who believe she is one or the other. Nuns who profess belief in miracles in past times doubt that the miraculous would occur under their own roof. Some are jealous of Mariette. Other nuns have no doubt that a saint has come among them. Mariette is a polarizing figure in the orderly life of the cloistered convent, and that fact determines her future.

Written in a poetic style and lavish in imagery, Hansen's text won't appeal to readers who prefer more straightforward prose. It does convey an out-of-the-world quality that suits the setting and subject, however.

It's not necessary to be a believer to be drawn into the central question of Mariette in Ecstasy: What do you do when confronted with the unexplainable? 

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