by Tori Hartman
Vigaland Podcast Book Review #11 by Viga Boland
If you’re a writer and aspire to one day pen a humorous novel or memoir, read First Friday by Tori Hartman. If you were raised in a very religious Catholic home, especially an Irish Catholic home, and aren’t too hung up on someone having a fun poke at what you were taught to believe, read First Friday. And if you’re a fan of crime fiction and love following clues and solving mysteries, read First Friday.
What? You mean readers will find all of that in just one book? Yes…and so much more.
What begins as a hilarious look at Agnes Anne O’Neill’s family gathering as they do on every first Friday of the month, for a pot luck dinner, which opens and closes with tons of prayers and endless supplications to the Blessed Virgin Mary by Agnes’ father, evolves ever so cleverly and gradually into a thriller, with Agnes Anne as one of the hapless victims of her nasty brother-in-law, Bruno. Hartman brings about this evolution so skilfully that readers don’t see that coming while they’re smiling and anticipating more of the funny stuff.
The funny stuff is centred on Agnes’ decision to reinvent herself, at least physically, when she is 28, a virgin and still living at home. She gets her real estate licence, goes blond and gets a nose and chin job, much to the chagrin of her father who can’t quite forgive her for tampering with what God has made so perfectly. Suffering from insecurity after being the butt of the family’s jokes all her life, Agnes is determined to succeed. She prays fervently and incessantly to the BVM for guidance and signs she’s doing the right thing.
But while all this is rather amusing, one can’t help but question the long term effects of such strict adherence to religious dictates and beliefs that have this adult woman so disturbed by her “sinful” thoughts and the fear of losing her virginity that she’s nearly frigid. But wait! There’s a lot more to Agnes Anne’s frigidity than her strict religious upbringing, and finding out that “more” keeps readers glued to the pages of First Friday.
Mixing humor and mystery, Tory Hartman uses the events in First Friday to examine other issues besides religious fervour. When Agnes tries to tell her sisters and parents that “Bruno-god-love-him” is trying to rape her, no-one believes her. After all, he is a doctor and devoted to his sickly wife, right? The family chooses instead to believe Agnes’ decision to change her looks means she’s chasing Bruno, and when she finally loses it, the family is convinced she’s become completely unhinged. This kind of scenario, of family members not believing what a child, an adult child in this case, is telling them, is far too common, as is denial.
Alternately laughing and holding their breaths, readers of First Friday will barrel through this most engaging story to a very satisfying finish. This is top-notch writing from a former magazine editor. As Tory writes in her biography:
“In order to be a Catholic in this day and age, one has to take a long term perspective. A sense of humor is necessary! I love writing about Catholic culture and the experiences that many of us have shared. Even if we weren’t Irish, we were taught by Irish nuns, had Irish priests. My maiden name is Regan, so I suppose I had a real dose of it. I wrote First Friday: How virginity almost killed me to encapsulate the conflict between the old church and the new, young and old, tradition vs. superstition. I must say, I had so much fun writing about the O’Neils that I didn’t want to end it. Will I write a sequel?”
As far as this reviewer goes, the only answer to that last question is “I sure hope so!”
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