Book Review : The Shape of Mercy
By Susan Meissner
Leaving a life of privilege to strike out on her own, Lauren Durough breaks with convention and her family’s expectations by choosing a state college over Stanford and earning her own income over accepting her ample monthly allowance. She takes a part-time job from 83-year-old librarian Abigail Boyles, who asks Lauren to transcribe the journal entries of her ancestor Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials.
Almost immediately, Lauren finds herself drawn to this girl who lived and died four centuries ago. As the fervor around the witch accusations increases, Mercy becomes trapped in the worldview of the day, unable to fight the overwhelming influence of snap judgments and superstition, and Lauren realizes that the secrets of Mercy’s story extend beyond the pages of her diary, living on in the mysterious, embittered Abigail.
The strength of her affinity with Mercy forces Lauren to take a startling new look at her own life, including her relationships with Abigail, her college roommate, and a young man named Raul. But on the way to the truth, will Lauren find herself playing the helpless defendant or the misguided judge? Can she break free from her own perceptions and see who she really is? (Courtesy of goodreads.com)
Adult Point of View
The Shape of Mercy is the 2009 ECPA Book of the Year winner. (A Christian book award.)
The Shape of Mercy showcases diverse women; what do they have in common? They are from different times, face different problems and have different attitudes, but each is confronted with prejudice. Meissner wants us to see a connection between these women, which is actually very slight, but thought provoking. Other experiences women have do transcend time; raising children, caring for parents and the work needed in raising families.
Mercy Hayworth is patient, demure and hopeful. Due to circumstances out of her control; her father’s death and her uncle away at sea she is left vulnerable at home. Because of jealousy, which is a kind of prejudice, she is accused of being a witch. She does everything in her power to protect the man she loves.
Abilail Boyles is an aging heiress, lonely and disillusioned. She lives with the regret of having turned away the man she loved. He was the gardener’s son, but he was also of Japanese descent and shortly after her refusal of marriage he was interred in a Japanese camp in California during WWII. She felt that she needed another young woman of privilege who could transcribe Mercy’s diary, someone who could keep her alive.
Lauren Durough is a college student who feels she is a disappointment to her family and she is fighting against her background of wealth, prestige and privilege. She doesn’t want to be hampered by her family, but comes to realize that she views others through a lens assessing their level of wealth. She wants to avoid assumed prejudices, but continually misjudges others. Lauren invites her college roommate, Clarissa, to her home. Lauren feels justified in her beliefs when Clarissa reacts just as expected around her home (mansion) and single, rich cousin, fawning over the exhibited wealth of Lauren’s normal home life. Later, her roommate expresses her complete lack of interest in money, but calls Lauren out on her prejudice. I’m not convinced in Clarissa’s declarations because she was so enamored by the life of privilege she experienced for a weekend. Raul, a young man that Lauren is attracted to, is also misjudged. However, he easily moves beyond preconceptions and sees that there is more to Lauren than she believes.
There are always two unseen “characters” in any book; the author and the reader. In this case I think its important to acknowledge these characters. The author, Susan Meissner, also has prejudices (we all do). Because The Shape of Mercy concentrates so much time on the prejudices surrounding the wealthy and the underprivileged I wonder what her personal thoughts are on the matter. She has assumed that the fabulously wealthy will drive a BMW; I know some very wealthy individuals who actually look down their noses at BMW and see them as only pseudo-wealthy automobiles that only the masses would be interested in acquiring. Funny right? It’s just a car. It appears that Meissner wants us to move beyond seeing race as a prejudice because Lauren doesn’t even have it on her radar that Raul is Latino, and her family doesn’t seem to have any problem with race either.
As the reader, we each bring out own prejudices. I believe it’s valuable to assess ourselves and see how our prejudices affect our reaction to the novel concerning both race and wealth.
The writing is beautiful and evokes beautiful imagery. It’s nice to have a book that isn’t filled with short choppy sentences. Here are a couple of examples:
“It was the first time in my life I’d been surrounded by books and felt uneasy. Only half of them were housed on shelves. The rest were loose, unfettered, poised as if to attack.” (p.14)
“The ink, made long ago from ground walnut shells mixed with vinegar and salt, was so faint it looked as if I could blow it away if I leaned over it and merely exhaled. The frail letters on the first page were barely legible; they looked like whispers, if whispers had form.” (p.23)
The author references several other books that Lauren is reading or has read; Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick and My Antonia. I do not see the connection of these books to the situation or the women’s lives. If you have an insight for these books being listed I would love to hear it. I feel like there should be a purpose!
The title of the book has two meanings. In Mercy’s time a shape would refer to a spectral visitation of a person. Today we would think of the shape of mercy being the form it takes, or the way we extend mercy to others. This second meaning is particularly important in the book. I believe that Lauren is ready to extend mercy to herself, her upbringing as well as the people she has in her life. Raul continually shows mercy in how he treats Lauren. Tom, Abigail’s former beau, extends mercy in the message and poetry he sends.
I would recommend The Shape of Mercy because it is thought provoking. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that the three main characters had a strong connection. One of the best moments in the novel is when Lauren has a conversation with her father and he helps her see it is best to not judge at all.
“I smiled. ‘I just wish… I wish I didn’t judge people by what they have or don’t have. I wish I could see people for who they are on the inside before I come to any conclusions.’
My dad blinked slowly and then said something so profound, I knew I would never forget it. The funny thing was, after that morning, he didn’t remember saying it.
‘Yes, that would be better than the other, but it still makes you their judge.'” (p.257)
By the end I felt like Lauren was ready to springboard into something new, that she had acquired a new hope and that Abigail had found a measure of peace that had been missing in her life.
I didn’t feel like I was reading a “Christian” novel because the characters were authentic and didn’t just throw out a simple solution of prayer in a cavalier way, as I’ve noted in other Christian authors. I will definitely try another of Meissner’s novels.
As a note, the character Mercy Hayworth is fictional.
4 out of 5 stars
- the Mother
In the author’s words :
In The Shape of Mercy, I explore the rocky path of making snap judgments, the unreliable and sometimes corrupt power of groupthink and the tragic results when we let fear dictate our choices. The three women in my story have three very basic things in common. They are all daughters of influential men, all raised as an only child, and each one must decide who they are. Are they women who stand for the truth even if they stand alone or do they let fear propel them to do what the crowd says to do, even if the crowd is wrong?
We have to train ourselves to see people the way God sees people. Having that kind of vision takes incredible discipline because our nature is not to see things like He does. I saw myself often in Lauren, the character in my book who transcribes the 300-year-old diary of a victim of the Salem Witch Trials, as the story revealed how she truly didn’t want to judge people but she did. She just did. We all do. We see a homeless man begging on the streets and we make all kinds of assumptions about how he got there and what he would do if we reached out to help him. Jumping to conclusions seems to permeate culture, regardless of the generation. Whatever the crowd says, we too easily believe. We need to fix our eyes on God, not the crowd.
The good news is when we embrace the virtue of mercy instead of judgment, we become ambassadors of hope. People with hope are attracted to the good they see in other people. My hope is this book reinforces that hope, that mercy has a shape and its shape is love. . .
If you liked this book I think you should try The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an historical novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.