Midnight Lemonade by Ann Goethe.

"Midnight Lemonade" is Ann Goethe's first novel. The theme--disillusioned Catholic girl faces the struggle between twentieth century life and religious faith and becomes a poet--may not be the most compelling, but Goethe's strong and skillful prose kept me strapped in hero Katherine Roberts's car for the whole way.

Penance, confessions, signs, omens, icons, rosaries, sacrifices, sin eaters, chants, prayers, luck: God can be appeased. Long past Holy Name Convent School, Katherine is still trying to achieve absolution for various "sins." She has invented for herself a kind of quasi-Catholic, pluralistic spiritual life. The reader's first question may be What must she atone for?

First of all, she has betrayed her family who expected her, as her sister admonishes, to become a "star." But Katherine has dropped out of college in frustration and disappointment. She has also let go of her faith, having found little that applies in the world outside Holy Name, a pastoral, somber, marble-halled Louisiana boarding school. An imperfect and troubled parent, Katherine has betrayed not only her religion and upbringing, but has also scorched the holy all-American image of martyred motherhood. Finally, she has betrayed herself--skirting any glory she was meant for and giving herself completely to marriage and a philandering, demanding husband. It is as if she left her questioning, active-minded, blossoming self back at convent school. As she wanders this literal and figurative road she's on--from Louisiana to Michigan to North Carolina, to California, back to Louisiana--she makes a pilgrim's progress to true spirituality, pride, rebirth, forgiveness.

"I am disturbed by my desires," the girl-Katherine fervently tells us, "which must mean that I am meant to be a great poet." But her great poethood manifests itself in a way that she doesn't even notice; she uses it to rewrite the parts of her life "that don't fit," effectively shooing away the desires she felt as a girl. In stories to friends and family, she insists upon her life's Disneyesque qualities: "All my stories are beautiful." Katherine's stories are happy movies starring an unhappy actor: she falls dramatically in love, gets married, has babies, starts drinking, and struggles to please God. And God is everywhere, in all the widest senses: God is Katherine's doting father, more than doting, kind, benevolent, all-powerful. At night he holds the infant Katherine up to see the moon and the stars, as if they were put there for her. God is Katherine's aloof mother, who, at the same time loves her two daughters terribly, and who, from her death bed, grants Katherine absolution for not having expressed love to her enough. God is the era, the demands of a changing society. God is the wealthy South and its distance from real time and events exacerbated by the Catholic God and His boarding school, where, "we are twenty girls, dressed in white." God is Katherine's professor husband, Eric. "He makes me forget my very name," she gushes, in love with her new perfect-looking life. In time, he does make her forget her name--forget who she is, what she once wanted for herself: "my husband is a Henry Higgins who falls in love with a long line of Elizas." She learns to live as the wife for her husband.

In "Midnight Lemonade," Katherine cannot get back into the garden of Eden without a price, believing that "we must pay for our sins." Katherine pays throughout the novel and believes that her only true gifts from heaven are her children. She makes countless deals with "the powers that be" to keep them, but then separates herself from them as a penance for being away with a lover when her daughter has a freak accident and falls into a coma. Here Goethe presents us with the question: Just how much are women responsible for in the world? It seems we are held responsible for the lives of our friends, parents, partner and children--their health, happiness and love for us. If our parents become distant, if our children become ill or die, if our spouse wanders or drinks, it is because we have failed. As an "act of contrition," Katherine rejects her lover and sends her resistant children to live with their father. She lives alone with their empty rooms.

Somewhere on her long road, Katherine does find absolution, realizing, "I have been saying there can be no salvation in this world, only retribution. I had forgotten about the state of grace." She discovers "there is no one left to hand it out. . .even absolution is a solitary thing." Neither God, nor her parents, nor the nuns at Holy Name can forgive Katherine. "Midnight Lemonade" is a morality play for women. The moral: absolution cannot be given--it must be arrived at.