Devils, McEldowney's second novel, is the tale of three women--Monica, Adelaide and Palma--whose friendship splinters after Monica becomes ordained as an Episcopalian bishop. Adelaide, an award-winning playwright, is intensely jealous and becomes obsessed with trumping Monica. The glamorous Palma attempts to soothe their relations, but fails. Then a deadly accident sets the group reeling and makes amends impossible--in the land of the living, that is.
Enveloping this story is another, loonier plot--that of Ferdy, a bungling demon who's dispatched by "the Boss" to sabotage Monica, called a "saint in progress," before she gets too holy. Ferdy is quite literally a demon, complete with feathers, a beak and a penchant for licking in between his toes when he's nervous, but he proves to be rather bad at getting Monica to sin. Instead, he warms to her. His idling incurs the wrath of his supervisor, and it really doesn't help when nail-like puncture wounds--stigmata, they're called--appear on Monica's hands and convince everyone that she is indeed anointed from above.
The religious silliness works sometimes, and derails the book at other times. Ferdy's ridiculous possession of a dog in an effort to sleep with Palma is awkward and jarring, as is slang like "SIP" (for saint in progress). McEldowney indulges in a lot of speculation about the workings of heaven, hell and the afterlife. Of course, she can't be serious. (Does God really appear in heaven as a set of huge knees?)
Then again, this lack of seriousness will keep more conservative readers from taking offense. By keeping it light, she keeps it safe. Her tackling of the supernatural infrastructure of her story is admirable, and her willingness to joke about it a relief. A little bit of saving--in the Christian sense--goes on in this book, but it's not cloying or preachy. Belief in God (we assume he's the Christian God, though Christ is never directly mentioned) comes across as a good thing, but even hell, filled with bureaucracy and boredom, isn't all that bad. Unfortunately, this meta-story fails when it distracts from the plot's more serious backbone, of the women and their unraveling friendship--which is so well-crafted that it occasionally brings you to tears.
Adelaide is the most compelling of the three. Self-obsessed and vindictive, she delights in the subservience of others (especially her devoted husband, Joe) and ferociously aspires to prove she's more successful than her friends. As Monica's star rises, Adelaide's world falls apart, and when tragedy strikes, and all her control is gone, her frantic efforts to right everything set her spiraling even faster.
We catch these friends at a bad time, clearly, but McEldowney has protrayed them so well, we feel like we've known them since childhood. At one of the book's most touching moments, the guilt-ridden Adelaide is watching Monica's face on a videotape of her appearance on the Today show. (Stigmata will get Matt Lauer interested.) "Her eyes looked to the left and down as if she had discovered something embarrassing on her coffee table that everyone might see. No one else but Adelaide would be able to read the look." It is not the only place where McEldowney gorgeously describes emotion.
She is a master of detail. The smells of salt and jasmine from the book's Florida setting practically rise from the pages. Monica's dream-catcher earrings speak volumes about her character, and later act as a sacred relic for Adelaide. Even opening a cabinet makes for thoughtful prose: "She opened the door and rattled pieces of odd china which had somehow insinuated themselves into her life, looking for love the way things do." These people and the things surrounding the women are so richly described that they become familiar to us: Palma posing in a Versace gown by the pool, Monica worriedly considering her obesity in her mirror and Adelaide sitting frustrated by her computer screen, the cursor blinking on an empty page.
It is clear from her fiction that McEldowney enjoys her work. There is an inherent glee in her writing that makes it a joy to read. Moments of absurd fantasy undercut her stylistic polish, but Guardian Devils is a pleasant surprise: a touching tale that holds its own in several different genres. It may have been better without the demons and the stigmata, but it's a delight just the way it is.