The Variations (2012)

by John Donatich

The author’s intellectual disposition shows in The Variations, the first novel from the head of Yale University Press. The Variations sometimes reads more like a philosophical debate than a novel. But the writing is adept, and the subject may interest readers who have the attention for Father Dominic’s angst and the issues of contemporary Catholicism.

Father Dominic is having an existential crisis as he plans the funeral of the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, where he is the assistant priest. He tries to minister to the congregation—including a troubled, pregnant 16-year-old who hints that the recently departed Father Carl is her baby’s father—while unsure of what he still believes and drinking too much. The bishop is planning to close the deteriorating urban church.

The book’s metaphorical title springs from the side story of an African American pianist who is practicing Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a recital. Other significant characters are the pianist’s elderly piano teacher, whose violent ex-husband deprived her of a performing career by maiming her hand, and her daughter, with whom Father Dominic moves in when he decides to take a leave from the priesthood.

Donatich may have been had more success with fewer characters. They don’t converge into a coherent focus, and the ending seems less of a conclusion than a petering out.


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