(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

David Plante is interested in the concrete details of daily life but also in the unknowable darkness that surrounds them. Brought up Catholic in Rhode Island by a Quebeçois family, he has, in thirteen novels, detailed a consciousness more than a world. A sense of detachment and dislocation permeates every tale he tells. His first novel was entitled The Ghost of Henry James (1970), and he labored under that writer’s influence for his first five books. Then, in the Francoeur Trilogy, Plante turned his eye toward his family and found his own spare, dark, abstract voice. That trilogy—The Family (1978), The Country (1981), and The Woods (1982)—in its vivid sense both of the distance that separates family members and of the disquieting mystery of the mundane, bears comparison with Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934).

Plante has since written Annunciation, a novel that by its very title asks to be seen as a Christian allegory. Unlike his previous novels, which are short and autobiographically inspired, Annunciation is long and heavily plotted. It depicts a modern world rife with despair, rootlessness, anomie, and suicide. Ultimately, its characters embrace the Catholic faith, enacting a contemporary version of the Annunciation.

The complex plot of Annunciation consists of two threads that are eventually twined together. The first concerns Claire O’Connel, an American art historian living in London with her sixteen-year-old daughter Rachel. As the book opens, Claire is spending a rare weekend away from Rachel with her bland English lover George. The afternoon of Claire’s return to London, Rachel, returning home from school, is raped. The trauma of the event reverberates throughout the novel.

As readers soon discover, Rachel’s father, an atheist, committed suicide several years earlier. Claire, seeking to protect her daughter, has managed to make his death appear accidental. Now, Claire’s foremost anxiety is that Rachel will, like her father, take her own life.

After the rape and resulting pregnancy, Rachel is brooding, incommunicative. Claire hovers nervously, yielding to Rachel’s desire to keep her plight secret. Ultimately, Rachel decides to have the child rather than undergo an abortion and to drop out of school for a year. A lapsed Catholic, Claire actively encourages her daughter’s willfulness; she does not have any other sustenance to offer her.

Meanwhile, in New York, young Claude Ricard, an editor of art books, leads a busy but fundamentally aimless life. Half French-Canadian, half Russian, Claude feels cut off from both his ethnic and his religious heritage. One day, he meets Penelope Madge, an English journalist, at a gallery opening. The two begin an off-again, on-again affair that seems to have little effect on the inscrutably casual Penelope but inspires obsessive feelings in Claude.

Trying to connect with his past, Claude occasionally visits Lidia Rivers, an elderly Russian émigré. Lidia introduces Claude to Marie Clark, a young niece who is about to visit Russia for the first time. Marie is a dutiful, depressive girl who fills her life caring for Lidia. Her trip to Russia only increases her vague disillusionment. Afterwards, she and Claude meet occasionally. They seem to have something in common—a shared heritage, perhaps, and a shared inability to find meaning in that heritage. Mutely, indirectly, Marie seems to appeal to Claude for help.

After Penelope inexplicably rejects him, Claude finds himself overwhelmed by frighteningly violent fantasies about her. Then Marie kills herself. He tries to comfort the devastated Lidia, offering to travel to Russia with her someday, but she is old and frail, and soon she dies. Penelope moves back to England. Claude is left trying to piece together the pieces of his shattered psyche.

The narrative returns to Claire, whose main link with Claude is her ambivalence toward her Catholic past. As a girl, Claire was devoutly religious; now, however, she studies religious iconography with the detached perspective of the art historian. Yet Claire feels no particular devotion to her vocation. She does not know if she will ever complete her dissertation, about the suicidal Renaissance painter Pietro Testa.

Then, perusing an obscure eighteenth century book in the library, Claire reads about a painting by Testa that she has never seen or seen mentioned. It is an annunciation painted for a church in Lucca, Testa’s hometown. With Rachel, she travels to Lucca to see what they can discover about the Testa annunciation.

There Claire runs into Henrietta Ridge, a fellow graduate student whose uncle is Sir Roger Leclerc, a renowned art historian who lives outside Lucca. A commanding, self-centered man, Leclerc takes an immediate interest in Rachel; he jokes grotesquely with the girl about the secrets she must have. He takes a cursory...

(The entire section is 2032 words.)