"Did you escape from prison?" Donna Lucia Fedelio asks the stranger who had said mass the night before in the derelict, decaying village church. It is a fair question; obviously, the aging visitor is a fugitive of some sort. Armed search parties are after him and closing in, and the village has decided, in the inscrutable way of small, Italian villages, that it will protect him. Security is probably not airtight; while the villagers proper will observe the code of omerta, there are also the Gypsies, Carlo the Awful and Caterina, who live in a nearby cave and rob travelers. It is true, they do not steal from their neighbors, but can they resist the kind of reward (perhaps as much as a whole salami) that they could get for informing on the helpless fugitive?
The stranger is certainly not a criminal and apparently some kind of priest. Already he is being called "the magician" by some and "a saint" by others. When they are asked to betray his whereabouts, the villagers instead go into a kind of litany that omits the essential information:
"He does not practice witchcraft!"
The stranger is credited with at least two miracles, and you can tell that he is a priest by the expert familiarity with which he leads a congregation through the mass. Toothless old Pinuccia, who is "reputed to possess the gift of the third eye," says that "he was sent to our village by God. He may even be the Son Himself, returned to earth as promised!" Others think he may be an angel, and they have a heated theological debate about how an angel should look.
The real answer is simpler, but the stranger does not give it to Donna Lucia when she asks him, "Did you escape from prison?"
"It was a jail without bars," he says. "Although I see now, less confining than I made it." His answer is accurate if uninformative. The prison from which he escaped is the Vatican, and he is Pope Leo XIV, formerly Cardinal Giuseppe Bellini, who reluctantly accepted the papacy a couple of years ago, has ruled reasonably well, traveled a lot, endured great frustrations, and now yearns to be, once again, a simple country priest. "Saving Grace" is the story of how he sneaked out of the Vatican, enjoyed a few adventures and then slipped quietly back in while his press office maintained the fiction that he was "still suffering from the effects of influenza."
It is a quietly enjoyable, harmless and sometimes modestly funny kind of novel, written with considerable skill. Some of the novel's odd personalities may come on like seasoned character actors from Central Casting, and the occasional bits of tourist-guide Italian with which the author seasons her dialogue sometimes sound a bit unidiomatic (as though the writer might have felt a bit more comfortable in French). But Celia Gittelson's first novel is a pleasant pastime, and it would make an enjoyable movie, if Hollywood were still making movies like this. She seems to have spent some time in Italy, and she has a knack for describing the look of things: an ancient, crumbling wall along the Appian Way, the carefully maintained gleam of the handrails in an elevator of the Apostolic Palace, the ceremonies with which one pays a fare and receives a ticket on a Roman bus. Her central characters, Pope Leo and Lucia, are well drawn, not in any great depth but with sympathetic, recognizable features. Her comic characters have a bit of Laurel and Hardy flavor underlying the garlic and oregano topping, and some of their misadventures (a helicopter crash, for example) do not contribute much thematically. But a novel must have a plot and a plot must have complications, and those chosen for "Saving Grace" will serve well enough.
Gittelson's best work is probably in her portrait of Leo XIV. He is seen browsing in a socialist magazine during the conclave that will later elect him pope, sincerely begging his colleagues to spare him that honor and burden, chafing at the restrictions imposed upon him as he feels himself becoming a public institution and struggles to remain a free individual. Some of his (and the author's) descriptions of ecclesiastical bureaucracy are hilarious, in a specialized sort of way. He tells his sister (who urges him to get away) about a morning spent reading "official documents . . . enough to kill a man if the pile fell on him all at once. I am ashamed to admit that I skimmed them indiscriminately. My secretary assured me it did not matter." The personality that emerges is (unlike some of those who surround him) warm and believable. If I were able to vote on papal candidates, I would vote for Leo, though he would not thank me for it.