Tessa is a no-nonsense midwife with three boys and a busy life, so she definitely does not have time for hallucinations of an angel entreating her to track down a long-lost relic.
When at last the angel does convince her that he is real, she is still skeptical that she can do anything to help, within the constraints of her busy life, but when politics threaten to shut down her birthing center, she offers to help the angel (Martin) if he helps her keep the center open.
The angel reveals that, years ago, he was in charge of protecting a church in Barlassina, a small town in Italy. During World War II, a firefight broke out between some American soldiers and a group of local village fascists. The violence got out of hand, and by the end of the night the church was a wreck, its priest killed in the cross-fire, and its precious relic of St. Peter the Martyr stolen. Without a church the town lost heart and became too mired in local family feuds to organize enough funds to rebuild. It’s been seventy years, and the angel Martin knows that unless something is done soon, the town will disappear off the map as everyone moves away. Driven by feelings of grief and guilt at his perceived failure, he is convinced that the return of the relic will save the community.
It’s always tricky portraying other-worldly sinless beings like angels in a story. Lebak’s strategy is to have them present themselves to other humans in a very non-threatening form, to have emotions that humans can relate to and while she doesn’t go so far as having one of them sin she does have them grapple with feelings of grief, low-self-confidence and inadequacy, particularly if they refrain from visiting God’s presence for too long. Lebak’s angels are more akin to Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life” than to a serious portrayal.
As Tessa and her husband try to track down the relic, she realizes that her own family came from this small Italian town. She even starts to reconnect with some cousins and to sympathize with the deep sense of grief this distant community feels over its long-lost treasure.
Meanwhile, things at the clinic are getting worse. When one of Tessa’s cases goes badly it turns into a lawsuit that threatens her license to practice.
I really enjoyed the friendship between Martin and Tessa. Her experience as a midwife makes her the perfect friend to him as he grieves the loss of the church he was charged to protect. Martin too is a great friend for Tessa. His patience and good humor are perhaps the only things that could overcome a woman as stubborn as she is. Though Tessa and her husband are avowed atheists, they are so practical and stubborn that confronting a real-life angel does nothing to shake them or make them wonder if they haven’t gotten more than that wrong. Frankly speaking, if you know you won’t be able to overlook this inhuman obstinacy then this might not be the book for you. Slowly Tessa does grow to appreciate the good that a church and faith can do for a person, but her gradual acceptance of God mostly involves her yelling at him in her head. Even at the end, I find it hard to imagine her converting. It’s unclear whether or not she does but she has at least begun to pray.
Aside from that suspension of disbelief, the tension in the book is wonderfully paced, making this a fast and enjoyable read. At the end, Lebak makes it very clear that God and Martin aren’t done with Tessa yet.