Fire Sermon, by Jamie Quatro, kicks off with a question: "Shall we walk back?" It's a provocative first line: a mere four words suggesting a multitude of meanings. To walk back is to return, to retrace one's steps, but also to de-escalate, to yield, to change one's mind. In this context, it's an invitation from one character to another: James is asking Maggie to come back to his place. Though they're married to different people and haven't yet slept together, they're already a "we." And James's opening salvo isn't just a bit of dialogue—it's a map for the whole novel, which autopsies an extramarital romance, gradually excising the damage done.
This is a love that grew from likeness: Maggie and James share an affinity for poetry and theology. They're both 45 and have been married to their spouses for 23 years, coincidences Maggie deems "cosmically ordained." She's a devout Christian, and some of the book's passages take the form of prayer or confession, while others trace the evolution of her family. Maggie and her husband, Thomas, met young and seemed happy enough—two kids, a dog, financial stability. But their sex life quickly flamed out. Try as she might, Maggie "cannot manufacture arousal" when Thomas is in the mood, and the couple's bedroom scenes, juxtaposed with flash-forwards of Maggie and James's passionate affair, are among Quatro's most affecting. Equally powerful are Maggie's imagined conversations with a moralistic, God-fearing therapist.
Late in the book, a personal trainer advises an aging Maggie to "trick the muscles" and "never give them the same exercise twice." The author herself is interested in reinventing the familiar. In her 2013 story collection, I Want to Show You More, she explored similar themes of faith and sex, as have a long list of writers before her. But Quatro's novel, full of vivid, mercurial prose, breathes new life into the subject and sets it gloriously ablaze.