"Abelard and Héloïse? Was he not that guy who got castrated?" That was the first thing that came to mind. And that they had joined a monastery afterwards summed up all I knew.
The novel is in fact three stories that intertwine:
- The story of Abelard and Héloïse in 12th century France;
- The story of Jewish Rachel and her father the professor in and around Paris during the Second World War;
- The story of the Father Mike, a priest in New York, of Irish decent who meets Rachel in 1950.
This novel is written by a former Catholic priest who has written a couple of non-fiction books about the history and concepts of Christianity and the relationship of the church with the Jews through history. This book however is a novel but prepare yourself to a lot of debate about theology. I am raised as a protestant but even when you do not know a thing about that religion this book will shake up your braincells. It is no easy read. Philosophy / theology: we see Abelard teaching at university or defending his opinion in front of the bishops. What is important: the intention or the result? Can someone do a bad thing out of good intentions? Had a God who is love according to Jesus really sent his son to earth to die a gruesome death? If the Jewish people were God's beloved people how can Christians kill them?
In the meantime we see Father Mike reflect on his job as a priest. He likes his work but he feels alone in the middle of his fellow priests. He also starts to doubt how the church works.
When he meets Rachel who feels very guilty about what happened during the war, the questions that Abelard put to his students 800 years prior have to be answered by the two of them to make sure they will find inner peace.
Héloïse has the last word in. She did not want to be openly married to Abelard as it would mean the end of his teaching post at the religious institute that university then was. But at the end of her life when she is a famous mother superior of a convent she instructs the nuns to bury her with her wedding ring on her finger for the first time.
The title "The cloister", points to a museum in New York where Rachel and Father Mike meet. It is a convent that was transported from France to the USA by Rockefeller. It is partly a real monastery from the same era in which Abelard and Héloïse lived.
Some original writings by Abelard and Héloïse have survived the centuries. After he was castrated and both lived in their own monastery they kept writing each other letters. In one of them, quoted in the book, she writes that when you have a very close intellectually connection you can be very happy and it will not leave room for other passions. They must have loved each other very much.
(I was given this book for free to read by Netgalley providing I would write a review. Thanks for the opportunity)