What happens when the world discovers that a quiet, 42-year-old bookstore employee and former priest has the power of forgiveness? Can he really offer absolution to any sinner for any sin? And even if he can, should he? For money?
These are some of the questions posed in Ann Bauer’s lively, touching and often funny new novel, “Forgiveness 4 You.”
Madeline, an anxiety-ridden advertising executive, meets the ex-priest, Gabe, after wandering into his bookstore feeling guilty about abandoning her stepdaughter. She is looking for a book “on regret, and what to do about it.” Madeline is so impressed with Gabe’s ability to soothe and absolve her that she hatches a plan: a company that offers confession and forgiveness.
At first, Gabe hesitates, but Madeline is persuasive. “I believe we have a chance to create something completely groundbreaking. Like, you know, the iPod back when Apple introduced it,” she says. “Think different, right?” Gabe agrees (it helps that he has an overwhelming sexual attraction to Madeline) and finds himself at the helm of a forgiveness brand, Forgiveness 4 You, where he is to offer “expert forgiveness and absolution for a flat fee that ranges from $2,000-$5,000 per sin.” An elaborate public-relations plan is put in place — TV and radio appearances, “social media entry points” — to make Gabe into a “forgiveness hero.”
The combination of religious tradition and 21st-century marketing is one of the more delightful elements of this novel. The story, told mainly from Gabe’s perspective but also from those of Madeline and the other characters, is interrupted now and then by memos created by the marketing team: “Key Insight,” reads one, “Today’s busy professionals are seeking a faster, more service-oriented route to achieve spiritual peace than traditional religion or psychotherapy.”
The way Bauer writes about guilt and what religion refers to as “sin” is compelling, but above all she shows a fresh understanding of the very human need for forgiveness, whatever that means for each person. Absurd as the Forgiveness 4 You campaign may be, Gabe is not a fraud or a shyster. He is, however, a guilty man. The sins of his past threaten to undermine the whole structure of Madeline’s marketing project; Gabe, meanwhile, becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the enterprise itself. He is especially uneasy about requests from clients who seek forgiveness for sinful behavior that they have every intention of continuing: neglecting a desperately ill friend, or committing adultery on a regular basis.
Beneath the captivating narrative flows the reality of human experience. The destruction of an innocent and damaged individual weighs heavily on Gabe’s conscience. Madeline suffers over her treatment of her stepdaughter. However bizarre the marketing scheme these two people have constructed, they must still confront life traumas that their own behavior may have caused.
Is redemption available to Gabe and Madeline, or to any of us? Can people find peace for themselves in our cynical commercial age?
Who really knows? This thoughtful, engaging book challenges us to consider.
Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including “Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age — and Other Unexpected Adventures.”
FORGIVENESS 4 YOU
By Ann Bauer
Overlook. 307 pp. $26.95