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In 'Agatha Of Little Neon,' Four Young Nuns Go To Help Others, And Find Themselves


Claire Luchette's "Agatha Of Little Neon" is about four Catholic sisters in an order all coming up on 30, who are reassigned to run a halfway house in Woonsocket, R.I., that's painted the color of Mountain Dew and called Little Neon. They're there to try to help people get sober and get a firmer grip on life. And there Agatha finds herself looking at her own self and soul in the world. It is a wry, insightful and remarkable debut novel from Claire Luchette, whose work has appeared in Ploughshares, Granta and The Kenyon Review. They join us from a road trip out west. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLAIRE LUCHETTE: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Early in the book, Agatha says, I was marked by grief. What did she find in the church and the fellowship of religious sisters?

LUCHETTE: I think Agatha finds a place to hide herself for a while. Sitting in a pew, Agatha can know what to do with herself for an hour. She can recite prayers. She can follow directions, follow rules. And I think that's what Agatha needs at this time in her life when she's lost her mother and desperately in need of something to anchor her.

SIMON: Yeah. So many incisive phrases in a book with such great heart. I made a note of this one - Woonsocket, a tuckered-out town in northern Rhode Island, split down the middle by a river of waste. Suddenly, the people at the center of her life aren't other sisters, but the residents of Little Neon. They give a different center in life?

LUCHETTE: Absolutely. When we meet the sisters, they've just spent years running a daycare that's dried up. There's no more money for it. And I wanted to send them somewhere where their skill set of caring for a baby or a newborn wouldn't translate, somewhere they would be out of their element. So I wanted to test the sisters and see if their faith would enable them to help the marginalized or if it would inhibit them.

SIMON: There's a man in Little Neon, Tim Gary - becomes one of my favorite characters. He has - I don't want to phrase this incorrectly. He's missing a jaw.

LUCHETTE: Correct.

SIMON: And he helps Agatha learn how to skate. What does that mean to her?

LUCHETTE: (Laughter) For Agatha, learning to roller skate is the first thing that she keeps to herself. It's the first thing that she doesn't share with her sisters in Rhode Island. And it's a little bit of pleasure, and it's a little bit of fear and a little bit of a risk. But ultimately, the ability to have some fun for herself and, you know, have a little bit of a secret from her sisters is the first of a long string of things that she keeps for herself.

SIMON: Yeah. I didn't hire a private detective, but I went online to try and discover more about you. I know from Chicago - we talked about that before the interview began. You've had lots of distinguished fellowships. That's about it, can I know more? Were you, for example, educated by nuns?

LUCHETTE: I was educated by a single nun. It was only when I was a senior in high school that I first met a religious sister. I was raised Catholic, and I was very good at being Catholic, was very good at reciting prayers and following rules. And my Catholic experience was wonderful. I have a lot to be grateful for. It's where I met my first nun, the woman religious who taught me macroeconomics. She was this incredibly tough Dominican nun who had all types of aphorisms that she would spit out seemingly at random, like there's no such thing as a free lunch. And the fact that a woman who had taken a vow of poverty was teaching me about free markets and trickle-down economics is just a delightful bit of irony that I'll never quite get over.

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section from the book because you have some stunning vignettes of everyday life that most of us let escape without notice. Let me get you to read one. The nuns are taking a road trip to their former residence in Buffalo, and they stop to picnic along the turnpike at a restaurant.

LUCHETTE: (Reading) At a picnic table across the parking lot sat a group of boys in scouting vests. They were slumped over their lunches, and they made no noise. A fat one stood and walked to the toilets. When he was gone, the others broke into whispers and jeers. Uneasy, we watched them snicker to each other and knew without hearing that they were mocking him when they had the chance. When the fat one came back to the table, the boys returned to their boxes of juice, a great play of innocence. Then we watched the boys fill a yellow bus and go, the jump and rattle of the engine as it hurtled on and disappeared behind the trees. We shook our heads and wiped our hands and fastened our seatbelts. How horrible, how merciful the ways we are, each of us oblivious to so much of the hurt in the world.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh, that's devastating. We see that every day, and yet I couldn't help but think, well, that's what makes Agatha and her fellow sisters special in this world.

LUCHETTE: Right. Absolutely.

SIMON: To be sure, this is a very - this novel is very open-eyed about the dark aspects of the church and crises. Of course, we're speaking in a week when Cardinal McCarrick has been charged with sexual assault of a 16-year-old in 1974. This makes them angry, doesn't it?

LUCHETTE: Absolutely. And this sense of anger and betrayal came from the women religious that I spoke to when I was researching for the book. Some were shocked, others not so much. But no matter how many degrees removed they were from any one headline, the sisters were all impacted. Their day-to-day lives changed as a result. So I wanted to imbue the story with some of that anger and that sense of betrayal and also convey that inextricable from these men's horrible crimes is their power and their belief that they are beyond reproach.

SIMON: It shakes their faith in the church. Does it shake their faith?

LUCHETTE: My goal in writing this book was not to write a loss-of-faith story but almost a falling-out-of-love story. Over the course of the book, Agatha learned so much about the way that the church works and how their strict adherence to doctrine makes it difficult to really do the work that the church is supposed to be about, serving the poor and showing up for the marginalized. And saying that you have love for all creatures and actually showing love for all creatures are totally different things. I wanted the sisters to have to learn that having compassion and understanding someone else's experience and pain and centering the other person's needs is really hard work.

SIMON: Claire Luchette. Their debut novel - "Agatha Of Little Neon." Thank you so much for being with us.

LUCHETTE: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.