January 1, 2020 at 6:30 pm

Visiting Writer | Jamie Quatro, Author of Fire Sermon, Jan. 23

Jamie Quatro, portrait

Jamie Quatro

By Alli Mancz

Ohio University’s English Department presents visiting writer Jamie Quatro on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Walter Hall Rotunda.

Quatro has authored several works of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her stories have previously appeared in The New YorkerTin HouseThe GuardianVirginia Quarterly Review, and Guernica. Additionally, her pieces have been anthologized in the OHenry Prize Stories 2013 and the 2018 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Fire Sermon book coverMost recently, Quatro published her debut novel, Fire Sermon, which has been noted as one of the Top Seven Novels of 2018 by The Economist as well as book of the year by other reputable publications. Her short story collection, I Want To Show You More, received similar accolades. It was identified as a Notable Book by the New York Times and an NPR Best Book of 2013. Quatro, who earned an M.A. in English and MFA in Fiction, currently serves as a contributing editor at Oxford American.

Fire Sermon

In Quatro’s novel, Fire Sermon, protagonist Maggie Ellmann struggles to assuage her guilt over a sensual and sinful affair with married poet James Abbott. Maggie, a wife and mother of two, becomes tormented by her forbidden passion for James and a night they share together in Chicago. Despite the main character’s marriage of more than 20 years to Thomas and other sexual interests that speckle her past, this poet offers a religious connection Maggie cannot resist. In an email to James, she admits, “talking about God with someone who takes it seriously – well, it’s something I didn’t know I was missing and now that it’s happening I realize how absolutely starved I was.” Only James can fulfill Maggie’s thirst for religious discourse and physical passion. Through these characters’ relationships, Quatro successfully intertwines concerns about infidelity and faith into an engaging narrative, especially examining their impact on the couples involved.

Sections of the book entail a series of intimate journal entries, email exchanges, and internal dialogues, each revealing compelling elements Maggie’s all-consuming desire for James. She attempts to reconcile her deep longing for a man other than her husband and agonizes over the pain of their affair, but nonetheless she continues to cling to these memories. Maggie realizes how “the act of remembering changes the thing remembered,” yet she continues to relive the wrongdoings characteristic of her past and willingly undergoes any consequent suffering. Quatro isn’t afraid to experiment with a diversity of literary forms to fully develop her characters and the nature of their relationships. Each technique reveals a new aspect of the story and opens a window into understanding the intimate, nuanced dynamics at the center of the novel.

Partly as a result of the protagonist’s Christian upbringing, relief forever evades her grasp. Such a release would require a termination of her longing and, ultimately, Maggie wants to keep the fire alive. Her sexual cravings fail to dissipate over time, as feelings of anguish persist and a sense of humiliation deepens. Fire Sermon then becomes an inquiry into the passage of time, as aging alters the nature of Maggie’s longing and shame. Additionally, Quatro deftly shows us her evolving roles as mother, lover, and wife.

Her writing style mirrors the turbulence of this novel’s compelling subject matter. Raw, inventive, and gripping, Quatro’s novel unearths a new perspective on the inevitable humanity of irrepressible passion, and as a book that forced me re-evaluate my personal worldview, I never wanted to let it go.

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