Our Lady of the Forest runs in fits and starts.
This story of young girl who is having visions in the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest is initially compelling, but then gets more tangled and confusing as it goes along. This is a complicated feat because the novel does not concentrate on an extraordinary amount of characters or themes, yet somehow you find yourself losing your way.
Anne, the "Joan of Arc" of the story, is a well drawn character who we are intensely interested in, despite Guterson's error of giving away most of Anne's tortured background right off. However, her friend, sceptic, and chief disciple is made out to be nothing more than a caricature of her own irony. There is no heart beating there, even though the author bestows her with heavy-handed secular motivations such as wanting to steal from the massive collections to fund her winter in the tropics.
Indeed, all of the characters aside from Anne and Tom Cross, (an unemployed logger who is mean to the core, but obviously searching for healing,) are just mouthpieces to state religious and philosophical questions that anybody with even a freshman Introduction to Philosophy or Theology class already knows. Within the first few pages we get stuff from Aquinas, Pascal's wager, etc. However, the book doesn't go on to illuminate these ideas or fulfill their arguments. Rather, we get long digressions that ultimately prove frustrating, not in their content, but in their context.
The community and the world in which Guterson has set his story is indeed fascinating, but perhaps the book is too short. I had a feeling that Guterson has too many things going on to be accomodated by the brief length. It seems as if the story ends too soon. The author conveys a deep passion for the area and some of the people, but unfortunately, not for the subject matter, and a result he loses not only his interest, but the readers as well.
There is poetic brilliance and exposition in the prose, but the dialogue just seems so contrived and leaden, especially in the beginning sections. As a playwright, I am around dramatic texts all of the time and I am witness to the struggles and pains that playwrights take towards getting dialogue right, because, basically it is all you have. I think it would serve some novelists well to try and write a play or two. Guterson included.