The Edge of Sadness (1961)

by Edwin O’Connor

The Edge of Sadness is known as a Catholic novel, but that shouldn’t put off other readers any more than Graham Greene’s Catholic novels do. In this warm, engaging, old-fashioned story about the humanity of priests, readers will find a protagonist whose struggles they can understand.

After four years at a rehab center, Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic, returns to his native New England city and is assigned to a declining parish of poor, diverse immigrant groups. When Charlie Carmody, the irritating, sometimes cruel father of the Carmodys who were his childhood friends, inexplicably invites Hugh to his birthday party, Hugh is drawn back into the Carmodys’ lives while trying to renew his vocation.

A character-driven story, The Edge of Sadness engages readers with a wealth of vivid characters: Charlie Carmody, who became a millionaire businessman but maimed his wife and children and knows no one really likes him; his son John, who went to the seminary with Hugh and is pastor of their childhood Irish parish; his daughter Helen, who might have married Hugh if he hadn’t become a priest; Father Stanley, Hugh's young, nerdy assistant; and the contentious Irish Americans that O’Connor knew so well. It could have been told in fewer pages, but it’s the kind of rambling tale that you don’t want ending too quickly.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1962, The Edge of Sadness was groundbreaking in its portrayal of the inner life of priests. Readers of fiction—and movie audiences—were used to priest characters whose inner reality was as pure and happy as their unflawed exteriors. O’Connor drew back the facade to reveal priests who were as lonely, self-doubting, and despairing as any other human beings. Unsurprisingly, faith is involved in Father Hugh’s ultimate renewal, but the spiritual aspect of this story does not stray into preachiness, and it can be read as a universal tale of a human being’s journey.


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