Once again, as in Karon's previous novel At Home in Mitford (1994; see separate entry), separation and loneliness are underlying themes. Father Tim's restful vacation in Ireland with his cousins Walter and Katherine has given him time to think about his future in Mitford. Still not ready to commit to marriage, he intends to give Cynthia a Waterford crystal vase and maybe his mother's amethyst brooch and accept her invitation to "go steady." However, Cynthia's career interferes with such a casual relationship. During most of the novel, Cynthia lives in a New York City apartment and keeps in touch with Father Tim through love letters.
When Father Tim is with Cynthia, he knows how much he needs her and enjoys her company. When they are apart, he admits his emotional impotence and fear of marriage. He asks himself: Can a sixty-year-old bachelor combine marriage with the ministry? Will I lose control of my life? Will my diabetes interfere? Can I share my bed with Cynthia? Will we truly become one flesh? And what about my dog Barnabas and her cat Violet?
During their on-and-off courtship, Father Tim gains insight into his own personality. Although other people think he is compassionate, he admits to himself that he is a bachelor because he selfish and unemotional. His heart has been "cold granite" until Cynthia, Dooley, and Barnabas, his dog, came along. Father Tim's friends and acquaintances urge him to marry Cynthia, but he procrastinates. Although Cynthia has no emotional fence around her life, her career as a successful writer and illustrator requires much time in isolation. After Father Tim proposes marriage, she tells him that she lacks qualities of a traditional rector's wife. She cannot sing, play an organ, do church dinners, or wash altar linens. However, she promises that she will give him plenty of tender, loving care.
Another theme in the novel emerges from childhood memories that either enrich or twist adult lives. Miss Sadie shares her memories of living in the wash house with her mother and father and China May, Louella's mother, during the time that Fernbank was under construction. Their relationship was close and affectionate in such a cozy environment with no taint of racial prejudice.
Miss Sadie also shares with Father Tim how Angelo Francesca from Florence, Italy, and his young son Leonardo painted the ceiling of the ballroom. They lived in Mitford for many months as they fresco-painted angels floating across a background of blue sky and white clouds. One angel has a rosebud in her fingertips.
Miss Sadie recalls the time she went on a picnic with Leon and his father. She and Leon were playing at an abandoned house site, and she fell six feet down a well, "stuffed in there like a pimiento in an olive." After Leon could not find her, he alerted his father and a search began, which lasted all night. During prayer, Leon had a vision of an angel that led him to Miss Sadie. The angel with the rosebud is the one that Leon saw in his vision.
Buck Leeper recalls a childhood incident that twisted his life. When Father Tim calls on Leeper to apologize for his failure to keep Dooley and Tom away from the construction site, he finds Buck alone and very drunk. Leeper confides that his father was a harsh disciplinarian who expected him to act like a man when he was still a child. Buck took his younger brother for a ride on the tractor and backhoe, and it overturned, killing the brother. Buck's father never forgave him, and he has never forgiven himself. His repressed anger isolates him from other people. He tries to deaden his emotional pain with alcohol, which makes him even more violent. Although Buck Leeper wears emotional armor during most of the book, Father Tim's empathy brings a change of heart. Both men endured childhoods with harsh, overbearing fathers. Leeper later shows kindness to Tommy in the hospital.
A motif in the novel involves female schemers. Edith Mallory, a wealthy widow, owns most of the property in Mitford....
(The entire section is 1,126 words.)