A common refrain in the teaching of the craft of writing, to whatever extent that can in fact be done, is that one’s form and content, story and structure, should each be sculpted with the other in mind, a sort of mechanical drinking bird for the art of fiction, where the pressures of one inform the forces of the other, and so forth and so on until we reach our conclusion. Although, like all basic tenets and rules of thumb, this one occasionally becomes overemphasized in discussion and thought, it nevertheless holds true. The decisions a writer makes—style, point of view, narrative structure, point of location on the internal-external spectrum—should and indeed must inform and support the story itself. A whole host of benefits, from narrative propulsion and coherence to presentations and exploration of thematic concerns, germinate from a well-planned novel, just as myriad, essentially fundamental, problems arise in a poorly conceived work. While all successful novelists give thought and time—those twin treasures of the writing life—to this issue, in their focused and coherent debut, Agatha of Little Neon, Claire Luchette finds a creative, deceptively simple path to a necessary destination. Here we have a work where the life and calling of the protagonist, our titular Agatha, young Catholic sister living in and running a sobriety home with her three companions in the church, is perfectly reflected in the coherent plot, denuded prose, and empathetic morality of the novel she inhabits.
We first meet Agatha at her longtime parish, in which she and her three sisters, Frances, Mary Lucille, and Therese, have lived for nine years, which is closing due to lack of funding. Set in 2005 against the backdrop of the turbulence within the Catholic Church, Agatha of Little Neon positions itself as a commentary on the disconnect between individual worshipers, believers, and servants of the Church, and those who profit from the international bureaucratic monstrosity it has become. The headstrong, severe, yet caring figure of Mother Roberta, who runs the doomed parish, appears in the book’s opening section before quickly taking her leave, serving as an example for Agatha and her sisters, a personification of the lifelong service to God and the religious community that they are just beginning. We are given glimpses into the corruption and apathy that threaten the Church, on both the micro- and macro-levels, but ultimately Luchette pinions the narrative to Agatha and her sisters as they migrate to the halfway house dubbed Little Neon in the rundown, depressed, wind turbine haven of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Here they are thrust into the commanding position once held by Mother Roberta, and tasked with running the home, keeping the residents—all of whom are struggling with addiction and attempting to put their life back in order—in line, and finding their own way in a world suddenly made very real to them.
As the book progresses, complications and tensions are formed around Agatha as she rather hastily volunteers to teach at a local school and the Little Neon residents face and occasionally succumb to their demons. As we learn more about Agatha’s past and what she hopes for her future, we are most prominently exposed to the opposing forces growing inside her—as she reckons with herself and her burgeoning independence, she simultaneously questions how she can locate and define her own identity if not as one of her sisters. Luchette clearly writes from a reserve of conviction and personal experience, and it shows in the continual refinement Agatha takes on as a leading character.
It is because of this shaping and polishing of their heroine—and Luchette’s structural narrative decision-making—that Agatha of Little Neon is a book that will appeal to readers who prioritize a story with clear lines of delineation and enjoy a protagonist who immediately and unmistakably places herself on their side. This is a work that, fitting to the outlook and vocation of its central character, can be trusted, one that does not ask anything more of its audience than it is willing to give. Told in a forthright, clearheaded, and sensible first person, by a narrator who is eminently likable if perhaps a bit dull, Luchette’s début demonstrates that its author has mastered that first essential element of the craft—clarity of purpose and a precise motivation behind their work. There is nothing to confuse, bewilder, or even much to challenge the reader here.
While for some that will result in finding Agatha of Little Neon too spartan and easily accessible a novel, the simplicity ultimately serves its purpose, allowing the story of Agatha and her nomadic sisters to take center stage all its own, unembellished and unmolested. Luchette adopts a method all their own, intertwining form and content perhaps not through the deep mining of consciousness or an ambitious, spiraling plot, yet nonetheless managing to find success. By creating a sort of fictive representation of the life the sisters lead, Agatha of Little Neon achieves that all-important synthesis, via technique and prose, of its protagonist and her story with a completeness that few books can match. Agatha—good natured, capable, sober, and driven—is the embodiment of the narrative approaches she is granted by her creator, as Luchette foregrounds their heroine’s words, thoughts, and deeds, leaving experiments in timelines, flourishes in language, or gambling in point of view for others to indulge in. While this approach runs risks all its own, namely in engagement and craftsmanship, it works here because it is genuine to the book and necessary to the story.
Fortunately, Agatha has a good deal of depth of character and a more compelling past than might first it seem. Luchette ably interweaves this backstory with the main storyline, allowing them to change speeds and establish narrative momentum in a book where the fictive present action is relatively straight ahead. As the sisters’ time at Little Neon and the complications they face grow, the reader grows to appreciate Agatha’s honesty, perspicacity, and conviction. The humanity is always on display in Agatha of Little Neon, never allowing one to stray too far from the course; much like the charges of Little Neon themselves, the reader is made to keep in mind the important things, and by the end Luchette manages a compelling story that achieves what it sets out to do. So while the book may have its reader who would have enjoyed a bit more disarray, in both the narrative and the narration, Agatha of Little Neon reaches that goal which all novels fundamentally pursue—saying something authentic and essential about the human experience—and does so with verisimilitude and the grace that comes with living simply.
Agatha of Little Neon
By Claire Luchette
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 3, 2021
D. W. White is a graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University's BookEnds Fellowship. He serves as Founding Editor for L'Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and Necessary Fiction, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he frequents the beach to hide from writer's block. He can be found on Twitter at @dwhitethewriter.