From weeping statues of the Virgin Mary to apparitions of Jesus’ face on burnt toast, hope can have strange origins.
In Andrew Roe’s debut novel, “The Miracle Girl,” a semicomatose 7-year-old girl named Annabelle becomes one such source of otherworldly comfort when sick people claim they’ve been healed after visiting her bedside.
Afflicted with a strange condition called akinetic mutism due to brain damage sustained in a car accident, Annabelle cannot move or speak — but she can inspire, and she quickly becomes a celebrity. It doesn’t take long for the lines outside her middle-class Los Angeles home to stretch around the block, representing a diverse smattering of humanity just wanting to spend a few minutes with the girl.
“There’s the ten-year-old with AIDS. There’s the thirty-nine-year-old with cancer and advanced arthritis and glaucoma. … There’s the unemployed single mom who saw it on TV and was just curious. There’s the woman who loves too little. There’s the woman who loves too much. There’s the woman who loves just the right amount but is not loved back in return.”
The novelty of the situation, however, does not extend to Annabelle’s mother, Karen.
Caring for her daughter around the clock, Karen forgets to eat and rarely sleeps. Her husband, John, who was driving at the time of the accident, fled to Las Vegas to drown his guilt in anonymous conversations and booze. Both parents torment themselves with what-ifs.
“(Karen had) learned that these things — these simple, apparently random things that do not appear to mean anything at the time — have their repercussions; they add up and (hurt) you and shape your future whether you realize it or not,” Roe writes. “And why hadn’t he been able to avoid the other car? All crashes are avoidable, aren’t they?”
Set in Southern California in 1999, the novel accurately captures the panic of the approaching millennium. Coupled with the region’s dry, barren landscape, likened by Roe to everything from a sauna to “the devil’s armpit,” the fear of Y2K creates a tumultuous climate in which widespread belief in the “Miracle Girl” seems not only possible but also plausible.
Told from several points of view, the perspectives extend to reporters, skeptics, and religious officials, as well as nosy neighbors and a particularly down-to-earth physical therapist. This creates a whirlwind of commentary on the nature of hope and mysticism, all told in Roe’s straightforward, down-to-earth prose.
“I still don’t know what to make of it all,” says one priest charged with investigating the phenomenon. “She’s paralyzed. It’s sad. That was the shocking thing. Even though I knew this, I’d seen her on TV and knew what to expect, a paralyzed little girl who can’t communicate either. But there she was. It was a shock. She just lies there in her room. That’s her whole world, that room. While all this whirls around her.”
Despite the heavy subject matter, the story ends on an optimistic note and in some ways, the resolution feels too easy. But Roe does take his readers on a worthwhile journey highlighting the necessity of seeking the miraculous in the mundane.
Angela Lutz, The Kansas City Star
“The Miracle Girl,” by Andrew Roe (336 pages; Algonquin Books; $24.95)