I was smitten from the first page with “Agatha of Little Neon,” a treasure of a debut by Claire Luchette with the most endearing protagonist—a nun who took her vows along with three other nuns when they were 22.
“We were fixed on one another, like parts of some strange asymmetrical body: Frances was the mouth; Mary Lucille, the heart; Therese, the legs. And I, Agatha, was the eyes.”
They entered the religious order under the watch of goodhearted, but firm, Mother Roberta, age 81, at a parish in Lackawanna, near Buffalo, New York. “Everything we knew about living, we knew because Mother Roberta had showed us.” The four young nuns served the parish well, working in the daycare center, learning how to make banana bread with brown bananas and occasionally going through the trash to find Mother Roberta’s false teeth.
Nine years later, it’s an incensed Mother Roberta who informs the four, as they’re changing the oil in an aged van, that they’re being “kicked out…the Buffalo diocese is broke…Bust…in arrears!”
Thanks to connections Mother Roberta has, she finds them a place at a halfway house, Little Neon, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, their goal, according to facility’s supervisor, Abbess Paracleta is to “keep people out of trouble.”
So begins the nuns’ assignment with recovering addicts and criminals who can live at Little Neon as long as they adhere to the rules. Among the residents are Lawnmower Jill and Eleanor, nicknamed Horse because she can sleep standing up and her drug of choice was heroin. There also are Pete, Baby and Tim Gary a long time resident who got hooked on pain pills after having half of his jawbone removed because of cancer. Tim and Agatha form a close relationship that’s touching as the story proceeds, a bond that elicits massive empathy for this man who has so much to deal with.
Soon Agatha is recruited to teach sophomore geometry at the parish school, a vocation she didn’t think she’d relish, or be good at, but she graciously rises to the challenge and benefits her students and herself, as she makes a new friend.
The merit of this lovely novel, that combines humor with pathos, can be found in the number of Post-it notes I used to mark passages. Readers may see themselves in Sister Agatha as she questions her faith—an admirable faith built more on spirituality than on religion, with its pitfalls of human frailty.
“I wanted to be as a teacher, and as a woman, some version of Mother Roberta: attentive, wise, beloved. But tough too, the way she was—full of conviction. The sort of person you’d think about as you fell asleep, comforted to remember that in this world of bad luck and rising sea leaves, and impossible pain, at least, thank God, there was her.”
“Agatha of Little Neon” will live on my favorites’ shelf where I can pull it down when I need a boost, an unforgettable book that made me laugh and cry.