Reviewed by Sanford Pinsker
Sunday, August 10, 2003; Page BW13
Sue Phong, a deaf 30-year-old Vietnamese-American woman, occupies the enigmatic center of Keith Scribner’s fascinating novel Miracle Girl (Riverhead, $23.95). She is widely credited with miraculously curing deafness in others, and that is enough to create a stampede of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic pilgrims to the Little Saigon section of Hudson City, N.Y. where she lives. If Phong is not exactly smoke and mirrors, she is surely mystery and shadow.
Naturally enough, the true believers believe, but some at the helm of this upstate New York diocese are suspicious. As the barrel-chested, tough-minded Bishop Frank argues, phony miracles cheapen one’s appreciation for the real thing. Add an unscrupulous real estate company that buys up church property on the cheap and then converts the buildings into high-priced condos, and the stage is set for a novel that explores how greed can compromise men of (supposed) faith.
John Quinn is one such man. He spends much of the novel agonizing about the deals he has cut. As one character rightly observes, “You’re searching for your faith.” In college Quinn was a business major who specialized in inventory theory. Now he finds himself badly needing to do a moral inventory on himself.
For much of the novel, the “miracle girl” exists chiefly in the talk on Little Saigon’s crowded streets and in the extensive media coverage Phong receives. For Bishop Frank, “she’s either an opportunist, a blasphemer, or psychotic.” But nobody ever really sees the miracle girl, much less has the chance to chat with her. At the end of the novel, Quinn does–and through his efforts, Phong escapes the unwanted attention that has swirled around her. As for Quinn, he reconnects with his faith–not just the kind that religion provides but also a deeper belief in himself, in others, and in the power of love to transform individual lives.
Sanford Pinsker teaches at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company