At the beginning of creation, angels were sent to Earth to watch over man. But the Watchers, as they were known, were tempted by the flesh of human women. They mated and produced human-angel hybrids called Nephilim. Over thousands of years, the Nephilim integrated into the upper-most echelons of international society and, using their unearthly beauty, power, and 500-year life-spans, they have been at least partially responsible for most of the world’s ills, including the Holocaust.
This is the premise of the debut novel by Danielle Trussoni, whose memoir, Falling Through the Earth, was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2006 by
The New York Times. I admit, I have never before read any fantasy-thriller fiction. Though I love a good mystery or even a time-travel tale, I prefer literature firmly grounded on Earth and am utterly unfamiliar with the conventions of this book’s particular genre, which internet research informs me is an archival or theological thriller. Also, I have zero religious knowledge. I don’t actually know where the Bible or the Apocrypha end and Angelology begins. And with that, let’s turn to plot.
The Nephilim revel in making man the enemy of man, distracting lowly humans from the truth of existence, and perhaps God’s love, by creating false dichotomies and meaningless arguments. Nephilim are responsible for the contemporary divide between God and science, as well as religious extremism in the name of tradition and social-sexual debauchery in the name of progress. Enter the Angelologists, members of an international council of academics who teach students about the supernatural beings and fight against the present-day influence of the Nephilim. The discipline is at once scholarly and intuitive, sacred and profane. The group also bears a passing resemblance to the mob because, well — once an Angelologist, always an Angelologist. Some Nephilim have begun to suffer a painful wasting disease, thought to be brought on by humanstyle gluttony and excess. It is believed that only the Angelologists might know the secret hiding place of a heaven-sent lyre, an instrument powerful enough to restore the ailing Nephilim to their full glory.
The present-day story of Angelology is set in the week leading up to Christmas, 1999. Evangeline is a 23-year-old nun who has been living at St. Rose Convent, in Milton, New York, since she was given to the nuns by her father at age 12. She meets Verlaine, an art-history graduate student on the trail of some poorly documented correspondence between a former mother superior and the focus of his research, philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller. Within the story is a lengthy, important flashback to Paris, set between 1939 and 1943, in which the main players are Evangeline’s grandmother, Gabriella Lévi-Franche, and Celestine Clochette, an elderly nun at St. Rose in 1999. The two are teenage angelology scholars — rivals and roommates — mentored by renowned Angelologists Dr. Seraphina and Dr. Raphael Valko. Percival Grigori, son of a powerful Nephilistic family and Verlaine’s mysterious employer, represents the dark forces.
The themes presented in this novel are thrilling: intellectual inquiry versus religious doctrine, tradition versus progress, love versus duty, good versus evil. For the book’s first half, which really functions as a back story and as a primer for the study of angels, I was entranced by the contemplative and sometimes exotic worlds of the characters. The intellectual rivalry between Gabriella and Celeste is especially seductive, set as it is against the deprivation and riches of wartime Paris. Unfortunately, as the story builds toward real action, the writing and the pacing suffer.
Trussoni’s descriptive powers are strongest when applied to architecture and antiquity, weakest when applied to human emotions and physical sensations. People are forever speaking softly; fresh air is invariably delicious. Though there is some competent and even pretty prose, there are also true clunkers: “The sight was so terrible that Evangeline caught her breath at the sight of it.” There is a sense that the book was rushed through production; at 452 pages, perhaps the final result would have benefited from another round or two of edits. Given that movie rights were sold to Will Smith before the book was even released, I can’t help but wonder if Trussoni confused her mediums in her haste to meet deadlines. The last third of the book should have had me ignoring real-world responsibilities in favor of finding out what happens next, but instead I was bored by car chases, a tensionless, foreseeable treasure hunt, and a love story so clumsily inflicted upon the narrative that it seems to have been written by someone else.
Though I won’t be giving away the predictable surprise-twist ending, I will say that, in the last five or 10 pages, the camera pans back. The action slows. Certain truths are revealed. and characters make utterly unbelievable assumptions about themselves, one another, and the world. The final shot is a perfect setup, practically written in the sky: Hello Sequel.