Book Review - Lay Siege to Heaven, by Louis de Wohl

I'll be honest: when I picked up Lay Siege to Heaven, by Louis de Wohl, I wasn't expecting a riveting read that would keep me up at nights. A good, edifying book, yes; a novel that would hold me spellbound, not so much.

Little did I know the surprise that awaited me beyond that cover.

What was it about?
This novel is a biography of St. Catherine of Siena - but a biography like none I've ever read before. It wasn't so bogged down in historical facts that it was a slow and laborious read, nor was it so fictionalized it felt candy-coated. Rather, it was an extremely enjoyable portrait of an amazing life, painted in the vivid colors of lovely description and sparkling with historical names and places. The Siena of the 1300s leapt to life on the page and sucked me in so that I spent every spare second reading. (Well, maybe not every second....but you get the idea.)
A very interesting thing about the novel is that although the entire story is centered around Catherine, it seldom goes into her point of view. Rather, it focuses more on the people around Catherine. It doesn't strain itself trying to pack into 300 pages all the fascinating things about her life - it doesn't mention, for instance, the invisible ring Christ gave her as a symbol of their spiritual marriage. But it does show a lot about her family and friends, the political problems and set-up of the time, and the troubles the Church was going through during her life.
What were the characters like?
They were awesome!
Who was my favorite one? Catherine! I love a book that makes the saints relatable and human without casting a shadow on their sanctity. Catherine has fears, temptations, doubts, and sorrows; she suffers intensely and flares up with just and holy anger. Yet at the same time, she leaves me speechless with awe and admiration, puts me to shame with her goodness. I should always be reading a book like this because it inspires me to true greatness.
Of course, there were other characters I was quite fond of. Fra Tommaso, Fra Bartolomeo, and Fra Raymond are all holy priests who give Catherine spiritual support - never are they stuffy or dull, but quite often provide a lighthearted take on things (especially Fra Bartolomeo), and in their struggles and shortcomings become as sons to Catherine, whom they hold in respect and awe. There was also a large number of redemptive characters, whom I always find endearing and encouraging. Francesco Malavolti, for example, was very interesting and likable even at his most despicable moments so that I couldn't wait to see if he converted. And - oh! The famous episode where Catherine helps the despairing prisoner had to be one of the most masterfully executed chapters in the entire book. Even the wicked and sinful characters who don't convert are well drawn and thus enjoyable.
Was there anything not-so-great about it?
Well, content-wise, it wasn't a book for little kids, as it didn't hide the decadence and sinfulness of certain characters. But for mature readers that shouldn't be a problem, as good always triumphs. Also there was some taking the name of God in vain. (Often with these old-fashioned characters I can't tell if they're using it in vain or praying, you know?)
The great number of characters, and the fact that quite a few of them share the same first names, adds potential for confusion. I also sort of wish it would've been possible to keep a larger group of main characters heavily involved throughout the story, rather than switching them out so often. (Besides Catherine, I'd guess the characters with the most stage time were...her mother and Fra Raymond? Her mother is there throughout the first half of the book or so and then sort of fades into the background, while Fra Raymond doesn't enter until about hallway through.) But it just wasn't the kind of book that could afford to add subplots involving side characters longer than a chapter or so, and I'm so impressed by the development of characters in such short space that I quite forgive Louis de Wohl for not telling me more about Francesco Malavolti and his friend Neri the poet.
Oh. And a punctuation nitpick. For some reason, the dialogue was punctuated like this, which got on my nerves at first:

"The sky is blue", said Bobby.
Rather than, how I would've put it:
"The sky is blue," said Bobby.
And, no, there's no one named Bobby in the book. That was an example. :)
What gems of beauty/wisdom are hidden in its depths?
Don't get me started. There was so much in this book to rave about. The whole thing was glorious. In particular, there were some very poignant and delectable descriptions. Also, there were lots of great quotes. Some of my favorite were:
"Fra Bartolomeo de'Domenici mopped his forehead. 'I've never dared pray to be allowed a vision', he muttered. 'Praying is such a dangerous thing. Before you know where you are, you're heard.'"
"The Pope must know by now that she was a saint. And saints were uncomfortable people. They had a way of inspiring fear in those who had not yet reached perfection..."
In conclusion? I highly recommend Lay Siege to Heaven to anyone who wants a good saint story. Also, if anyone asks me for a Christmas list anytime soon I'll probably put a Louis de Wohl novel on the list....:)


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