Review: ‘An Uncertain Age’ by Ulrica Hume

At the beginning of Ulrica Hume’s metaphysical and spiritual novel An Uncertain Age, Justine meets Miles Peabody on the Eurostar en route from London to Paris. While they appear to meet by chance, it’s more likely destiny is involved. An aspiring artist, Justine is looking for certainty and stability after losing her job and her fiancé. A retired librarian, Miles is focused on twilight of life issues. They are drawn together despite their differences of age and lifestyle and end up site seeing together while Miles considers making the traditional Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He wants Justine to accompany him; before she can decide what to do, Miles disappears on a routine errand in Chartres.

Miles is fascinated to the point of obsession with the tragic love story of the 12th century French philosopher Peter Abelard and his student Héloïse d’Argenteuil. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for Justine to converse with him about anything without hearing what Abelard and Héloïse thought or did under similar circumstances. Abelard founded a monastery called the Oratory of the Paraclete. Some years after the powers that be forced Abelard and Héloïse into separate lives (both in religious orders) after their illicit affair was discovered, she ended up at the Paraclete as its abbess. In their honor, Miles’ house in London is named The Paraclete.

The relationship between Justine and Miles takes on some of the overtones of Abelard and Héloïse’s relationship. Inasmuch as destiny seldom presents its happenings with a definitive guidebook, it’s impossible to say whether Miles and Justine are drawn together and then separated from each other because Miles wants to mimic Abelard’s life as part of his own search for meaning or because their spiritual quests cannot move forward on the same path.

While much of Abelard’s work was considered heresy by the church, he did convince the Pope to accept his doctrine of limbo. The irony here is that Miles’ Abelard-like disappearance casts Justine into an ongoing temporal limbo. First, the nature and direction of their relationship could not be pinned down to Justine’s satisfaction. When Miles disappears, the French police won’t allow Justine to leave town until they are satisfied she is innocent of potential crimes that might explain his absence. When Miles isn’t found and she is free to leave Chartres, Justine is uncertain what to do next because other than working on her art, her specific plans aren’t well defined.

Wherever Justine is, she knows she will be waiting for Miles to return, perhaps as Héloïse longed for Abelard. Drawn to spiritual ideas, she seeks out a safe haven where she can ponder religious writings, work on her art and share her days with others of like mind. Those she ultimately meets on are missing something and are on their own quests based on the tenets of their diverse faiths.

The strengths of An Uncertain Age include the many layers of meaning flowing through the steps Justine, Miles and the other rather eccentric characters take while seamlessly sharing prospective routes to fulfillment that are traditionally at odds with each other. Hume’s novel is well plotted, well crafted and well researched. Some readers may be turned away at Hume’s characters’ heavy reliance on quoting and pondering scholars and religious leaders. To some extent, the philosophy delays the story.

At the same time, the philosophy drives the story. An Uncertain Age has the depth and power to inspire readers to ponder their own choices while waiting for the moment when each of Hume’s characters moves forward in faith or certainty instead of doing what Abelard and Héloïse would do. Hume’s prose makes this journey a rewarding trip.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”

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A combination of incongruous things

“pot·pour·ri n. pl. pot·pour·ris – 1. A combination of incongruous things: “In the minds of many, the real and imagined causes for Russia’s defeats quickly mingled into a potpourri of terrible fears” (W. Bruce Lincoln). 2. A miscellaneous anthology or collection: a potpourri of short stories and humorous verse. 3. A mixture of dried flower petals and spices used to scent the air.” – The Free Dictionary

  1. I’ve about finished reading An Uncertain Age by Ulrica Hume. That means you’ll be seeing a review of the novel here soon. According to the publisher (Blue Circle Press), Justine’s life is uncertain when she meets Miles Peabody on the Eurostar. She has lost her job, her fiance, everything except her dream of becoming an artist. Miles Peabody, a retired librarian and beekeeper, has always led a cautious, philosophical life. Now, faced with his mortality, he needs a miracle. Drawn inexplicably to each other, their relationship is tested when Miles invites Justine to join him on a Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. But before she can answer, Miles goes missing. Desperate to find him, and nudged by the French police, Justine slips into a dark night of the soul. A fascinating theme!
  2. I you keep up with publishing news, you know that the Independent Publishers Group and Amazon could not agree on Amazon’s slice of the pie. Consequently, Amazon turned off the buy buttons for the 4,000 e-books from the author’s IPG represents. In a post called “What Should an E-book Cost?,” IPG compares print and e-book pricing. Not being one to keep quiet about such issues, I posted “The low prices of e-books are bad for writers” on my Sun Singer’s Travels blog.
  3. While I’m happy that The Artist, Meryl Streep and Christopher Plummer won Oscars last night, I’m also happy that I only watched the last 15-20 minutes of the event on TV. It was long, ending a little after 11:30 p.m. (Eastern), but not as long as it has been before.  Had I watched all of it, I think I would have agreed with Andrew O’Hehir’s assessment in a piece he wrote for Salon: “From Billy Crystal’s cringe-worthy act to the obvious winners, the Academy Awards felt old, tired and out-of-touch.”
  4. My brother Douglas has entered the world of fiction writing with a fantasy/allegory called Parktails. The novel tells the story of a massive forest fire in a national park from the animals’ point of view. In many ways, Parktails is a quest story; the animals are seeking answers and inspiration and must travel many miles to learn how to keep their community together. Doug teaches art at George Fox University in Oregon. He is also the author of Seeing: When Art and Faith Intersect,  published in 2002.
  5. I have been updating my website to better display my books. Among other things, I needed to add my recently-released free e-book Celebrate Glacier National Park. The 48-page PDF about Glacier’s history, personalities, facilities, plants and animals can be downloaded from the Vanilla Heart Publishing page at Payloadz. In addition to the website, you can learn more about my 2011 contemporary fantasy novel Sarabande on my Sarabande’s Journey weblog where my most recent post was “Check your imagination at the door.” If your book group or class is planning to read and discuss the novel, you”ll find a list of sample discussion questions here.
  6. If you’re an author and/or an avid reader, I invite you to stop by my daily list of links for book reviews, book news, contests and writing tips called Book Bits. It’s usually posted in time for your lunch-time web surfing. Tomorrow’s edition will include a feature for writers called “Know Your Competition” and a review of Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker.
  7. You can still download Vanilla Heart Publishing’s free, Valentine’s Day e-book called A Gift for You. The book, which features fiction, nonfiction and poetry focused on love, includes my short story “Those Women” as well as work from authors S.R.Claridge, Janet Lane Walters, Anne K. Albert, Chelle Cordero, Marilyn Celeste Morris, Collin Kelley, Melinda Clayton, Charmaine Gordon, Smoky Trudeau Zeidel and Joice Overton.
  8. Even though it’s not yet spring, I’ve already had the lawn mower out once to trim the front yard. I’m always somewhat surprised when it starts right up without a lot of tinkering, oil changes, or a trip over to the auto parts store for a new spark plug. The yard looks better now and even somewhat green due to our recent thunderstorms. We’ll have to decide soon whether to clean out the garden in the back yard and then fight with the deer all spring and summer over our vegetables. Oddly enough, they seem to be drawn to the hot peppers–I thought they would leave those alone.

Wherever you live, I hope you’re seeing signs of spring.


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