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The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn

Janis Hollowell

(William Morrow)

Like a Virgin

Americans, who are fascinated with teenage girls in general (so moody! so sexual!) seem particularly fascinated with what they perceive as teenage girls’ special connection with the divine. Five years ago, Cassie Bernall, a wholesome, blonde victim of the Columbine High School massacre, became a cult heroine after her mother wrote a book, She Said Yes, about her life and death. (The Legend of Cassie: Before Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris killed her, he asked her if she believed in God and she replied in the affirmative. Hence the title of the book.) Cassie has something in common with Susie Salmon, the young protagonist of Alice Sebold’s enormously popular The Lovely Bones, who suffers a gruesome death and ends up in heaven, from whence she proceeds to narrate. Even television has gotten into the act, with Joan of Arcadia, in which a teenage girl communicates directly with God.


The Francesca Dunn whose “annunciation” Janis Hollowell’s book covers is 14 and living in Boulder, Colorado. Suddenly, after a mentally ill homeless man named Chester has a vision of her as the Virgin, she starts being able to heal people (or, people start thinking she can heal them—it depends on who you ask). Francesca’s friend Sid is the witness to the one incontrovertible proof that Francesca did, indeed, at one point have some sort of power; Francesca made a rose blossom by caressing it. The slight nature of the evidence of her divinity doesn’t deter hordes of people, who flock to her house in order to get some sort of sign or help from the Virgin. Francesca starts believing the story herself, and imagines that she is pregnant, although she has never had sex.


Her no-nonsense mother, Anne, takes Francesca away into the Rocky Mountains in order to lose the crowds and save Francesca from what Anne sees as her own growing delusions. The divinity-seekers soon fall away, but it takes a really terrible event for Francesca to come to her senses about her own power or lack thereof.


Hollowell wants you to wonder whether the whole thing was just in Francesca’s head, or whether there is such a thing as immaculate conception and divinity made flesh. But by throwing medication into the mix—Anne puts Francesca on some sort of psychiatric drug—Hollowell confuses the theology. Does God deny his visions to people who are on psychiatric medication? Wouldn’t that mean that God has been thwarted by chemistry? And didn’t God create chemistry in the first place? Ultimately, the book is too slight to address these huge questions.


The multiple narrative voices seem to be an evasion tactic, fallen upon by the author so that the big issues can remain unaddressed. The book is written from several different points of view, including Chester’s, Sid’s, and Anne’s. Francesca, conspicuously, never gets a voice. The chapters headed with her name are written in the third person. She remains outside of our understanding—lifted above of us. One could be led to surmise that this device was meant to make Francesca seem more divine in some way.


However, because Hollowell describes Francesca so vaguely, we never really figure out what really happened. In a way, she has chosen an impossible project for herself as an author. Perhaps if Francesca’s voice had been transcendent, in some way, we could have believed that she had the power to heal or to nurture. But because she remains shrouded, we are left with only Chester’s “eyes as deep as the universe and wrapped in a cloak of glory” vision of Francesca, or Sid’s “she had the kind of beauty that made boys freak out so bad they couldn’t deal with her at all” assessment. There’s never anything really there that would make us believe that this teenager could be something else besides who she is.


The book is also marred by several gratuitous scenes, including the one where Francesca’s friend Sid cuts herself in a bathroom stall at school (“I knew from years of experience that the cut was too clean to make a good scar, and I wanted this one to last forever. I cut again, this time turning the blade so that it gouged and brought skin and tissue with it”) and the one in which Anne, a paleontologist, describes a romantic encounter with a fellow scientist on the Mongolian steppe, after which they eat fossilized ginkgo leaves. (Really!) These diversions seem neither here nor there, as though Hollowell were avoiding doing the real heavy lifting of the book: writing about Francesca herself.

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