ONE OF THE THINGS I want to do in the newly begun Year of Faith is write more reviews of books by Catholic authors. Today’s selection is a book that I’ve just read and really enjoyed, but I almost didn’t read it. Rebecca Bratten Weiss, co-author of Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes Her Début (double-billed with Regina Doman), was a classmate of mine in the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, and when I saw on Facebook that she had a new novel published I immediately downloaded the Kindle sample from Amazon. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking at some of the featured reader comments on the Amazon web site, one of which described the book as, “a clever addition to the so-called chick lit genre.”
As far as I know, I’ve never read anything that could be called “chick lit,” but I was interested to see what Rebecca (quite a clever chick herself) had come up with. I must have been feeling irritable the day I began to read the sample—I was already wary because of the “clever chick lit” label and the first page or two seemed to validate my impression that this book would be flip and superficial, so I quit reading and deleted the sample. I was glad that Rebecca had written a fun novel and glad that some people enjoyed reading it, but didn’t feel I needed to be one of them. That was my mistake.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt guilty for jumping ship so quickly from Catholic Philosopher Chick, so when I’m glad that I recently saw this review on the First Things blog I was quickly persuaded to download the full Kindle edition and get reading.
Part of the fun in the novel for me was recognizing people and places I know first-hand. Although the story is set on the campus of the fictional Dominican University (DU) of Houston, it is clearly modeled, in large part, on the University of Dallas (UD) where Rebecca and I were graduate students together (Rebecca probably also drew inspiration from her undergraduate alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville). Cate Frank, the protagonist— a Jewish Catholic convert who has abandoned a career in fashion journalism in New York to pursue a doctorate in philosophy in Texas—shares a lot of biographical points with the novel’s two authors, and the faculty and students of Dominican U. reminded me of particular individuals I’ve known personally, as well as evoking “types” that will be recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time on a university campus. Catelyn’s ill-matched on-campus roommate, a bubble-brained bimbette with little interest in academics or intellectuals, reminded me of the girl I got matched up with my first semester in college (ooh, painful memories I’d thought long buried!).
The young men in Cate’s seminar on the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (the “Suminar”) also reminded me of classmates from both my bouts of grad school experience—young cocks proud of themselves for being able to sling the jargon of their academic specialty, but really not nearly as wise or knowledgeable as they pretended to be. (As a grad student, I shared Catelyn’s delight in popping their bubbles of pomposity and pretension.)
If this novel had simply allowed me to laugh at the (sometimes painful) memories it evokes, however, that really wouldn’t be reason for me to recommend the book to others who might not share those memories. Fortunately, this novel has a lot more going for it than just being an in-joke for readers who can figure out which UD philosophy professor resembles the fictional Dr. Paul Hastings, teacher of the Suminar. The story is built on themes that many college and graduate school students have struggled with, particularly intelligent, intellectually-inclined young women: trying to figure out where your life is headed and why; wanting to make your parents see that a “useless” academic degree is worth sacrificing some of life’s pleasures to pursue; juggling the balance of academics and romance; struggling to see how Truth, Beauty, and Goodness intersect in the messiness of our real, mundane lives.
The major theme that runs through the whole story is the question of a woman’s place in the world. As the first and only female in the “invitation only” Aquinas seminar, from the first day Catelyn finds herself battling to win respect from her male classmates; at the same time, she is hoping to find “Mr. Right.”
Finally! I had escaped. I had fled the frenetic rat-race of the Eastern seaboard and come, like a modern-day hermitess, to the Texan desert, in search of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful…
OKAY! I admit it! And the Perfect Guy!
At 24, I was already starting to feel like an old maid. With no dates in two years I was beginning to wonder anxiously if perhaps God had other plans for me. Yikes! Still, I continued to hope brazenly that God had that Special Someone in store. Preferably before I turned 30.
Perhaps it was pretentious of me to expect I would find the Perfect Guy while studying philosophy at the Dominican University of Houston. One does not usually associate the words “Philosophy” and “Perfect Guy.” But then again, one would not normally associate “Young Jewish Catholic Woman” and “Lover of Saint Thomas Aquinas” either. Yet here I was.
I had left my fashion magazine job—given up the world of Dior dresses and Louboutin shoes—to devote myself to the writings of a thirteenth-century monk. But I liked to think of myself as a post-modern penitent, snatched from the fires of Cosmopolitan and caught up to something higher and purer.
As you can see, Catelyn is a bundle of inner conflict, but by the end of the novel—after plenty of false starts and wrong turns—she has triumphed in both her pursuits: to make her mark as a Catholic Philosopher Chick and to find the perfect guy.
Two of my favorite things in this novel were (1) the clever (mostly Latin) chapter titles (even if you don’t know Latin, some of them will be familiar) and (2) the scene early in the story when Catelyn, using St Thomas Aquinas’s famous dialectic method, analyzes the possibility that the Perfect Guy may actually be one of the students in her Suminar class. (Very funny for anyone the least bit familiar with the Summa, but also amusing to the uninitiated.) This scene nicely illustrates Cate’s struggle to find a real-life application for the theoretical wisdom she is amassing.
I’ll admit that I found the frequent references to Catelyn’s designer clothes and shoes a bit tedious, but they did remind me of how I, too, once sweated over the details of self-presentation in any social situation. Lots of other female readers, not yet as dowdy and middle-aged as I am, will be more entertained by the protagonist’s fashion consciousness. My only other mild beef with the story is the character of Nat the nihilist, who is more of a “type” than an individual. I can understand why his type needed to be represented in the cast of characters, but he seemed little more than a prop. I was secretly hoping that, by the end of the story, he would have begun to see the light or, at least in some way, have been changed by his time at Dominican U. Still, neither of these complaints would dissuade me from reading (or re-reading) this smart and funny novel.
I don’t know if the Catholic Philosopher Chick will be making a return, but I’m sure many readers will hope she does. A prequel detailing how she came to be a Jewish Catholic convert interested in Aquinas would also be an interesting tale.
By the way, although this is Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s first novel, her co-author, Regina Doman, already has quite a few titles to her name. Many readers will be familiar with her best-selling children’s picture book, Angel in the Waters. She has also published a string of novels for teens, based on well-known fairy tales, updated. Find out more about them all on the Chesterton Press web site.