If a little learning is a dangerous thing, then it follows that a little more learning--the amount incurred during a typical three-year graduate program in the humanities, say--is downright reckless. Langston Braverman, the reluctant heroine of Durham author Haven Kimmel's debut novel, The Solace of Leaving Early, is way too smart for her own good, or for the good of anyone else, for that matter. Embittered by her failed academic experience (she's just walked out of her Ph.D. orals), frustrated by her importunate mother (with whom she is living, once again) and tormented by the memory of love cut short, she brandishes her intellect like a sawed-off shotgun.
Langston isn't oblivious to the fact that others, including her own family members, are immediately turned off by her queen-sized haughtiness; on the contrary, she welcomes their antipathy. It reminds her that she's qualitatively different from the people in the small Indiana town in which she grew up and to which she has dejectedly returned. Trapped in a life of the mind, Langston resorts to intellectual tyranny as a means of broadcasting and reinforcing her otherness.
Living just around the corner from Langston is another figure whose education has arguably done more harm than good. Amos Townsend isn't a cerebral bully, though: He's a gentle and thoughtful man of the cloth undergoing a crisis of faith. The pastor of a tiny congregation in the moribund town of Haddington, Amos presides over doomed nuptials, ministers to lost souls and delivers eulogies that sparkle with the sweet promise of a peaceful afterlife, a notion he doesn't want to abandon. As he composes sermons meant to lift the spirits of his parishioners, Amos struggles nightly with demons of doubt. Some are conjured by the stubborn inapplicability of the lofty theological ideas he absorbed in seminary: Of what possible use could the esoteric philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead be to a couple grieving for a dead child? Other demons spring from his creeping suspicion that too much rationalizing has crippled his capacity for agency. Amos, too, is trapped in a life of the mind. The difference between him and Langston is that he wants out.
Though they don't know it yet, Langston and Amos constitute a dyad; The Solace of Leaving Early is the story of how they discover the crucial role they'll play in each other's lives and in the lives of two little girls whose world has been shattered. It's also a story about taking on unexpected obligations, and the paradoxical joys that can accompany terrible responsibility. While we, as readers, follow Langston and Amos through their daily lives in chapter after chapter, for much of the book the two manage to elude each other like moons whose orbits are just slightly out of sync. Langston's only significant relationship (after the one she enjoys with her own overweening ego) is with her mother, AnnaLee, who divines the river of pain flowing beneath her daughter's imperious surface and tries, with mixed results, to dam its destructive current. Amos, despite his ministerial calling, doesn't connect with anyone in Haddington, and spends his evenings on his patio reading and (furtively) drinking wine. The mordant irony of a minister's spiritual isolation is hardly lost on him.
What thrusts these two together is an act of unspeakable violence: A local woman is killed by her estranged husband, but not before she fires off a round in self-defense, killing him as well. The couple's two small daughters witness the entire scene. In their post-traumatic state, they spontaneously adopt a homemade brand of Catholic mysticism, renaming themselves "Immaculata" and "Epiphany" and reporting regular visitations with the Virgin Mary in a tree trunk outside their grandmother's home. When it becomes clear that their ailing grandmother isn't equipped to handle the responsibility of caring for the girls, AnnaLee, her next-door neighbor, offers to help raise them, and conscripts Langston to share in the myriad duties of caregiving. Langston--whose objections have less to do with her feelings about children than they do with her feelings about mothers, including her own--is suddenly called upon to be a nurturer, a role she has never imagined for herself, and with good reason.
A genuine sense of pastoral duty compels Amos to help the girls, though he has other, private reasons for feeling the need to step in and look after them. Amos is in the grand tradition of conflicted ministers that stretches back centuries in American literature, from Updike's Tom Marshfield (A Month of Sundays) to Harold Frederic's Theron Ware to the granddaddy of them all, the tortured Rev. Dimmesdale. While Amos' secret isn't especially scandalous, it's burdensome enough to throw him into a tailspin of guilt and self-loathing. Eventually his orbit crosses with Langston's, and as they square off over how best to meet the troubled girls' needs, the qualities that would seem to unite them--their fierce intelligence and unswerving devotion--threaten to rip them apart and make things much worse for everyone.
Kimmel is the author of a memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, which told the story of her life in a small Indiana town much like the fictional Haddington. That effort was so perfectly tailored to the book-club crowd that the paperback featured, as an appendix, a series of questions for discussion. Reading The Solace of Leaving Early, one feels that Kimmel must be aiming for something grander here: a novel of ideas that would move along with the swiftness of a romance or a sweeping family drama.
It's an ambitious undertaking, especially for a first novelist, and at times the difficulties inherent in crafting such a hybrid lead to strained moments. Kimmel's imagined world is one in which neighbors who are not academic theologians finish each other's obscure Alfred North Whitehead quotes--something that might happen every once in a blue moon in Cambridge or Princeton, but which is harder to accept in a novel set in small-town Middle America. At times the author's admirable desire to show how her enlightened characters have escaped their provincial trappings feels like postgraduate name-dropping: She makes sure to let us know they're reading Walter Lowrie's A Short Life of Kierkegaard, or Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions, or a collection of stories by the French-Romanian pessimist philosopher E.M. Cioran. Such blunt illustrations of Kimmel's erudition are unnecessary. We know she's smart. And since 99 out of 100 readers won't have encountered these works themselves, the references don't do much to add to our understanding of what makes these people tick, which is Kimmel's--and any novelist's--primary responsibility.
In the end, though, these annoying little bumps in the road don't spoil the trip. The Solace of Leaving Early does, in fact, move along at a pace much swifter than many novels that seriously attempt to explore its many themes: love, duty, guilt, healing and the utility of spirituality. If the manner in which the book ends seems inevitable, that doesn't make it any less satisfying on an emotional level. Haven Kimmel's first novel is good; her second one will be even better.
Haven Kimmel will read from The Solace of Leaving Early at McIntyre's Fine Books in Pittsboro on Saturday, June 29 at 11 a.m.
Jeff Turrentine lives in Durham. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Slate.com, and he is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review.