Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts.
Once upon a time there were three little angels - well, no, that was another story. But in Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, we do have three little girls in Cincinnati: plain, whiney Alice; precocious, irreverent Roxanne; and regular gal Del. Inseparable since childhood, by the time they are thirteen, the girls have indulged in the usual nonsense, even calling forth spirits to deliver the man of their dreams - handsome, dark-hared, romantic.
The three friends attend a Catholic girls’ school. Artistic Roxanne is the leader, always a bit more adventurous and the usual instigator of their pranks and experiments. When unsuspecting Father Romero, a new Cuban priest, arrives in the parish, the girls develop a crush on him. Innocent as it appears, this fixation results in devastating consequences for poor Father Romero.
Years pass. Wealthy Alice finds her marriage falling apart; Roxanne is a successful sculptor; and good old Del has married a wealthy widower with a small daughter, a man thrilled with his bride of two years. Then a stranger comes to town: Varick - urbane, sophisticated, with a slight European accent. Devastatingly attractive, Varick will touch each of these women’s lives dramatically.
Alice, who has been petulant since her husband left her for his pregnant office manager, bemoans the infertility that plagues her, sure she would be happy if only she were able to have a child. Suddenly, slyly, she mentions a mysterious lover, a man who exceeds her romantic dreams. By now Roxanne and Del have grown tired by Alice’s predictability, her brittle unhappiness, the friendships strained by the demands of changed lives, the other two content to let Alice have her fantasy.
There are a couple of other pivotal characters: the much-reduced Romero, who has left the priesthood only to be swallowed in a morass of shameful sexual encounters; and the obnoxious Dillon, a rebellious addict easily led by Varick, his face distorted by metal studs and tattoos. Alice’s ex is thrilled to be having a child with is new love, complacent about Alice’s silence since his life is easier without her interference.
Then things begin to get very messy. Varick is the catalyst, like some mad puppeteer jerking strings and turning normal lives into nightmares. There is a strong whiff of innocence versus evil, of young girls who believe they have the power to summon the forces of darkness, and a great reckoning on the horizon. The three silly teens have become women, one tormented with loneliness in her palatial estate, one wanting more from her marriage but guilty about her dissatisfaction, and one who enjoys success and the fruits of natural beauty, forgetting that there are consequences for an act of teenage revenge.
From the grotesque to the nominally erotic, the novel dips into all those dark places where evil lurks, whether in the mind, or, dare we say it, the devil come to exact his punishment. Lurid and exploitative, this books skirts pulp fiction and an overly active imagination, but Benedict does put her finger squarely on the impulses that lurk just beyond the façade of humanity.