The book keeps calling my name - even though I finished it weeks ago - and I'll probably reread it frequently over the course of my life. I plan to buy more copies to give away as birthday and Christmas gifts, too.
Yeah, it's that good.
Here's the review I wrote:
Title: The Scent of God
Author: Beryl Singleton Bissell
Publisher: Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Books Group
Publisher's Address: 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016-8810
Publisher phone number and/or website address: www.perseusbooks.com
Author’s website: http://www.berylsingletonbissell.com/
Author’s blog: http://berylsingletonbissell.livedigital.com/
The Scent of God
by Beryl Singleton Bissell
Review by Aaron Paul Lazar
The Scent of God by Beryl Singleton Bissell is a work of fine art, reminiscent of a painting by Rubens or a haunting Saint-Saëns melody. The beautifully crafted memoir offers words that glisten like gems on each page. Lush imagery, redolent with heady scents and vibrant color, transports the reader to locales ranging from the sanctified to the exotic. Readers will savor every chapter of this alluring tale.
The story begins in 1947 in Saddle River, New Jersey. Beryl, one of four siblings in a Catholic family, catalogs her mortal sins at an early age and is riddled with guilt when her mother serves meat on Friday or the family misses Mass. Her father’s binges and the rage and panic his drinking elicits in her mother, cause Beryl to seek comfort in nature. With her siblings, she happily tramps through the lakeside woods - swimming, fishing, tobogganing, and exploring abandoned farmhouses. In sixth grade, Beryl begins attending a private boarding school run by Catholic nuns who teach her about a God of unconditional love. This knowledge calms and thrills the young girl, who longs for stability and acceptance.
When Beryl is thirteen, her father’s drinking causes him to lose his position as vice-president of a New York bank, but he is offered an alternate position in Puerto Rico. When the family relocates to the tropical island, Beryl draws inward, avoiding friends and life outside the home. Beryl’s sister’s popularity and her mother’s critical harping about her weight increase her sense of displacement. Witnessing the drowning of a young boy, however, brings her face to face with her own mortality and the superficiality of earthly success. This new knowledge, in combination with a mystical experience of God’s love and the breakup with her “first love” -- a handsome young Puerto Rican boy -- set her on a course toward a life of commitment to God whose love is eternal and unchanging.
At the age of eighteen, and in spite of her parent’s initial disapproval, Beryl enters the Monastery of Saint Clare in Bordentown, New Jersey. With visions of becoming a saint, she thrives on the simple goodness of the daily processes in the cloistered nunnery, enjoying working in the bakery, her daily prayers, and the quiet camaraderie of her sister nuns. Her experiences in the monastery are lovingly and honestly recounted, providing a rare glimpse into this life.
Twelve years later, Beryl is deeply ensconced in the tranquility of the monastery when she receives the news that her father has taken ill, and that she needs to return home to assist her mother with his care. Returning to the island reawakens her senses.
In the course of caring for her father, and in the most delectable and surprising twist of this true story, Beryl meets Padre Vittorio, a handsome Italian priest who preaches at the local church of Saint Jorge. At first irritated by the man, Beryl slowly finds herself falling in love as she gets to know him better, igniting the most painful yet wondrous struggle of her life
It would spoil the story to reveal more. Suffice it to say that the segment of the book involving Vittorio is sensual and captivating, never offensive, and completely addictive. Be forewarned that The Scent of God will lodge in your heart and invade your dreams for years to come.
Thankfully, the author is working on a sequel to The Scent of God. This reader anxiously awaits the next chapter in Beryl’s delightful true-life saga.
Now, let's meet Beryl!
Here are the interview questions:
Aaron: The luscious Puerto Rico you described haunts me, making me crave the ocean and an abundance of ethnic cuisine. And those sun-drenched scenes in Italy completely floored me, especially coupled with the emotions evoked by your memoir. Have you returned to the locales of your youth? What did you find?
Beryl: Ah, Aaron. You’ve asked a question that could consume pages of type. I shall try to synthesize but saying that the first time I returned to Puerto Rico, after an absence of more than 14 years, I was stunned by the changes that had taken place -- much like the surprises that greeted me when I returned for the first time as a nun after an absence of 12 years. Then it was the massive infrastructure of superhighways that had risen while I was gone, this time it was the glut of high-rise hotels and condos that now lined the once beautiful shoreline. I felt disoriented, sickened, and claustrophobic.
To experience the island as it once was, one has to high-tail it out of the San Juan suburbs. The city of San Juan remains historic and gorgeous but the suburbs, especially the Condado and Miramar sections where I grew up, have been sacrificed to tourism. Once outside those suburbs, the Puerto Rico that I knew and loved as a child re-emerges.
I returned to Puerto Rico several times, beginning in 1995, to research material for The Scent of God. Bill had recently entered my life and he came with me, falling as much in love with the island as I am. While in Puerto Rico we stay with friends, and at small country inns called Paradores – two or three different Paradores each time we go. These Paradores, located throughout the coastal regions and in small mountain towns in the interior, give the traveler the chance to experience the island’s culture and unique beauty in a way cosmopolitan areas do not. From them one can foray into the countryside and explore the sites, visit with the people, practice one’s rusty Spanish. The countryside is where I find the Puerto Rico
I love. I wrote a piece for Gather last year about getting caught up in a mountain motorcycle funeral that might give readers a flavor of these experiences. Remembering Puerto Rican Style
I have not gone back to Italy since Vittorio died. It was too difficult to travel alone with tiny children, and when they grew old enough I didn’t have the means to take them, and when I did have the means to take them life was changing too rapidly for any of us to fit such a journey in. I have stayed in touch with his family in Italy and Bill and I talk about such a trip once things settle down for us.
Aaron: Was the process of revisiting some of the most difficult events of your past therapeutic? Did you find it cleansing, or did stirring up the past trouble you?
Beryl: Here’s a warning. When you begin to write memoir, prepare for pain. Clothe yourself in courage and know that the journey will be traumatic. Believe also that, done well, writing your memoir will be therapeutic.
In brief, this is what the writing The Scent of God was like for me. I’d gone through 8 drafts of the book, each time getting a little closer to the truth of the story, when I received a letter from an agent telling me that it was a great story but that I hadn’t told it yet … and she was right. I’d deliberately avoided dealing with some of the more painful and revelatory experiences that were essential to understanding the past. The rewrite I did then was a prolonged and excruciating examination of conscience, one that I hope has prepared me for the even more painful journey my next book is proving to be.
Aaron: Your appreciation for life, dare I say, “lust for life,” jumps from the pages of The Scent of God. Your passion for nature, food, colors and tastes, all blend beautifully with the fascinating story. The descriptions of food left me salivating. Do you like to cook, Beryl? And if so, can I come over for dinner?
Beryl: I love wonderful food -- especially when prepared by someone else. I think of myself as a resigned cook, accepting the need to prepare meals but wanting to get it over as quickly as possible. I have been trying to look at food preparation as an art but must acknowledge that I’m much better at appreciating this art when created by others. I love to read about, hear about, and observe these artists at work even more than I enjoy feasting upon their creations. I am totally enamored of the scent of food – especially from ethnic cultures.
Aaron: Tell us about the dog who is featured in your photo used as an icon on Gather.com. What a beautiful animal!
Beryl: Shelby lies next to me as I write. She moved into our home five years ago while I was away on a month-long writing retreat. Shelby was at that time an eight year old Collie/Springer Spaniel mix that had been dropped off at the Animal Alliance in Duluth that no one seemed to want. She seemed resigned to her fate and lay in the kennel, surrounded by leaping, yelping, please-take-me-home doggies, looking quietly at Bill. The spaniel Bill had hoped to adopt had been claimed only minutes earlier so Bill took Shelby for a walk to check her out. Anticipating returning with a spaniel, he’d left the truck door open. Shelby jumped in. She’d claimed him. When I returned home and found her waiting at the door, I was more than surprised: I was downright unhappy. Shouldn’t we have discussed this first? It took but a day for Shelby to win my heart.
Aaron: You have a great affinity for nature and seem most happy when you’re outdoors. Tell us how your childhood growing up in the most diverse locales cultivated this affection.
Beryl: Place a child, any child, in the midst of a naturally beautiful environment. Give them the freedom to explore the fields and woods surrounding their home, to lie on their backs and watch the sun shimmer through the leaves of a tree, to spend hours watching an ant attempt to carry a crumb across a patch of grass, to float in an icy cold lake or push their hands into the sandy bottom of a creek, and they are bound grow into persons who love the out-of-doors. Give them the space to observe and marvel, the silence to listen and ponder, and they might also become artists and contemplatives. Take them from one culture and put them into a new one where they feel out-of-place and awkward, and they will most likely seek joy and friendship where they’ve found it before: in nature. That is what happened to me and nature remains the place I call home.
Aaron: How did you survive such traumatic losses? Did the love or your cherished children help you through the pain? (I’m trying not to be too specific here, so as not to spoil the story
Beryl: We survive traumatic loss because, for me, the alternative is unthinkable. Given the choice to survive or succumb, I’ll choose survive every time. I’ve been blessed with a temperament that recognizes the transitory nature of joy, that believes in transformation, honors growth, and gives thanks for life – and a will that chooses to believe that death is transitory rather than terminal.
Aaron: What’s next? Do we get a glimpse into the subsequent phases of your life? I want to know more, as I’m sure do all your readers.
Beryl: I’m at work on the memoir that picks up where The Scent of God left off: where the river I’d ridden till then hits floodtide – washing me onto even stranger shores and into experiences I’d never envisioned. Let’s just say that I have crammed several lifetimes into this one and have several more stories pummeling my soul and demanding release.
Aaron Paul Lazar is an engineer by day, but his passion lies in writing. The first book in the LeGarde Mystery series, Double Forté, is an absorbing tale of love, intrigue, and murder; “a feast for the senses that will leave you breathless.” Upstaged, the second book in the series, features a disturbed stage mother, a deviant predator, and a twisted saboteur who lurks backstage, terrorizing the drama club with deadly, psychotic games. “Lush, vibrant, and delicious.” Lazar’s latest book, Tremolo: cry of the loon, a literary coming-of-age mystery, is available through Twilight Times Books.
Lazar has written a second series featuring paranormal mysteries with Sam and Rachel Moore, a retired country doctor and his wife who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Watch for The Green Marble, coming in 2007 from Twilight Times Books.
Lazar’s monthly columns are featured in the Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and the Voice in the Dark mysteryfiction.net newsletter, and his writing advice articles have been often published in Absolute Write. He lives in Upstate NY with his extended family. Visit his websites at http://www.legardemysteries.com/; www.mooremysteries.com, and his blog: www.aaronlazar.blogspot.com.