By Danielle Trussoni
Viking, 384 pp., $27.95
"Falling Through the Earth," Danielle Trussoni's memoir of her troubled relationship with her father, a Vietnam veteran, was one of the most critically praised books of 2006. Plowing through "Angelology," her first novel, it’s hard to believe the same writer produced them both.
Ferocious honesty and trenchant humor have been replaced by cloudy biblical exegeses and portentous statements about the battle between good and evil. In a plot so convoluted it makes "The Da Vinci Code" look like a model of clarity, Trussoni locates the source of all evil in the Nephilim, "a species of angelic-human hybrids" created when a group of disobedient angels known as the Watchers mated with human women.
Archangels defeated the Watchers and imprisoned them in an underground cavern, but the Nephilim were left free to make life miserable for ordinary humans across the millennia. They survived the Flood by sneaking onto Noah's ark; they infiltrated the Tudor and Hapsburg dynasties; they profited from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution; and Nephilim were found at all the best Nazi parties in occupied Europe.
Sister Evangeline, the young American nun whose actions drive the plot, won't be the only one "feeling the onset of a headache" as she attempts to elucidate the tangled history of the Nephilim and the "angelologists" who make it their mission to battle these creatures. Because Nephilim continued to mate with humans over the centuries, their angelic qualities have been diluted, and they've fallen prey to a mysterious disease that ravages their wings, then kills them. We learn these facts in passages of musings by Nephilim Percival Grigori whose sole justification is the author's need to get us up to speed.
Evangeline comes from a long line of angelologists; her mother Angela was murdered by Nephilim seeking to get their hands on Angela’s genetic research, which might offer a cure for their affliction. Her father tried to protect 12-year-old Evangeline by stashing her at St. Rose Convent in New York-- a poor choice, since the convent also houses an elderly nun who in 1943 descended into the cave holding the imprisoned Watchers and retrieved a lyre thrown to them by the archangel Gabriel in a moment of misguided pity.
Why do the Nephilim want the lyre so badly that they burn down the convent-- twice-- looking for it? Why did angelologists go in search of it in the first place? Trussoni offers multiple explanations, all of them murky. What she doesn't offer is compelling characters to spark our interest in her turgid tale. Evangeline is a pallid protagonist. The dire threat posed to all humanity is embodied in a single Nephilim family, the Grigoris, and his mother's contempt for Percival's ineptitude makes him an underwhelming villain-in-chief.
A lengthy flashback to World War II-era Paris provides a clue to Evangeline's ancestry so obvious that its revelation with a dramatic flourish 200 pages later is decidedly anticlimactic. The Paris section does have the strongest characters: Evangeline's grandmother Gabriella and her best friend/rival Celestine, the lyre-retrieving angelologist who winds up at St. Rose Convent. But Trussoni's solid portrait of the girls' competitive relationship underscores the perfunctory nature of the romantic feelings she sketches in the main narrative between Evangeline and Verlaine, the art historian hired by Percival to discover why Abigail Rockefeller corresponded in 1943 (note the date) with St. Rose's abbess.
The quest for the lyre ultimately leads to a ridiculously over-elaborate denouement in Evangeline, Verlaine and too many other characters scurry around the Museum of Modern Art, Riverside Church and the Cloisters before confronting Percival at Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve, 1999. This will no doubt provide a spectacular climax to the movie version forthcoming from Sony, which last year paid $1-million for the film rights to "Angelology" in the same week that Viking won a bidding war for the manuscript. Trussoni is reportedly already at work on a sequel-- indeed, the loose ends left blatantly dangling at the end of "Angelology" virtually scream, "Volume Two on the way!" Only the most diehard fans of pretentious supernatural thrillers will want more of this silly story.
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle's 2010 Excellence in Reviewing Citation.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun