Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday Book Review: Shelf Life of Books with Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Publisher: Multnomah Books (August 9, 2001)
ISBN-13: 978-1576738269

Shelf Life

Staying power: that’s what every author wants. If our purpose is to be read, the secondary part of that answer is, we want to be read a lot.

Rue, who is perhaps better known for her tween and YA work, has also written for adults. Pascal’s Wager came out in 2001, and got a little breath of fresh air when the publisher put it out ten years later in e-book format. Welcome to the new century, Multnomah/Random House. Though, seriously—hardly anybody pays ten bucks for an old book on Kindle.

I bought this book a year ago because I was exploring attending a conference taught in part by the author. I wanted to check out her work, and e-mailed a couple of the teachers. The one who did respond to me had no idea what he was doing. With so little confidence, I chose not to attend, but the book has stayed in my TBR pile.

I like literary-style prose; I like somewhat genre-free reading; I enjoy a challenge that does have a conclusion at some point. I got all three in this quite intense story. It’s dated, of course. Authors of contemporary lit have to use contemporary reference points, so some of the music and films and events are forever encased in turn of the century-mode. But the premise is timeless: the challenge of seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal to live as if God exists, no matter how you reason his existence, for you have nothing to lose.

Jill McGavrock’s elegant and renowned mother, Dr. Elizabeth McGavrock, is losing to her mind to a terrible disease. Jill’s never given thought much to matters of faith, preferring sarcastic self-defense in order to maintain her incredible busy life. When she learns of her mother’s condition, Jill is horrified by the idea that Elizabeth’s essence, her soul, might be gone, too. But if a person doesn’t believe in God, why should the state of her soul matter?

Jill’s encounter with a philosophy professor on the Stanford University campus where her mother worked and where Jill pursues her doctorate in mathematics, changes her life on many levels. Fighting through much of the story with the mostly gentle and always charming ways of Dr. Sam Bakalis, they each learn the depth of wounds and struggles which has formed their personalities. Jill and Sam need to grow and see through their defenses, and slowly form an attachment.

More than a conversion story, Pascal’s Wager challenges to reader to reach inside to determine the depth of our faith commitment. Are we paying lip service? Are we happy? What is happiness, anyway. What does it mean to live as if God exists?

The main character isn’t necessarily likeable, certainly not at first, but her crustiness and the fear that keeps it as a barrier, is almost loveable as she deals with her mother’s deterioration. I empathize in some ways with that dread. It would be easier and certainly reasonable to let others take care of Elizabeth, and I kick myself when I want Jill to give up. Mother and daughter were estranged and I wondered why Jill kept trying so hard to take care of her when she didn’t have to. My attitude shows me the depth of my faith, and I didn’t always appreciate that mirror.

Staying power: I don’t know the sales from the first release days; I don’t know when the publisher put the book online. It doesn’t have many reviews. I was able to gloss over the references; younger readers may wonder about some events, but intelligent readers know how to look up stuff we don’t immediately connect with. In fact, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that we still have CDs and cell phones. What allows this novel some staying power is the question: who are we when we can no longer think or share relevant thoughts? Where does our psyche reside? How do we really allow others to know us?

Pascal’s Wager is told entirely in first person from the main character’s viewpoint over the course of about eight months. Readers who enjoy these types of discussion will find much to appreciate in this age-old debate.
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