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Novel poignantly explores faith, hope

The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn, By Janis Hallowell, Morrow, 310 pp., $23.95

Francesca Dunn is 14. She lives in Denver with her mother, a divorced paleobotanist. She plays the cello. She is beautiful. She helps serve meals to the homeless at Ronnie's Cafe. In short, she is talented, lovely, goodhearted, but in no way extraordinary. Then one day Chester, a homeless man, one of the cafe regulars, notices something different about her. Chester is gifted with an unusual sense of smell. He can smell people's emotions, characters, sometimes even illnesses: "I can pick up the rotten sweetness of infection from across the street. Anger coming off a person is an acrid, mustardy thing, and lying has a cloying soapy smell."

Francesca smells of roses. Divinity. Holiness. Then another homeless man says her touch cured his heart trouble. And every morning, on her front porch, she finds flower petals arranged in beautiful, delicate patterns like those of a Tibetan mandala. Word spreads. People gather across the street from her house. Others leave flowers, letters, and gifts for "the Virgin," as they call her. Crowds surround her when she goes out. Soon she can't leave her house. Francesca is trapped, wondering how long she can hide her morning sickness and missed periods from her mother.Chester tries, only sometimes successfully, to act as her protector. Anne, her mother, doesn't understand how anyone could believe in a messiah, let alone that her daughter could be carrying it. All she can do is keep her daughter inside, wonder why this guy named Chester sleeps on her lawn, and pay Francesca's best friend, Sid, to help Francesca keep up with schoolwork. And Sid is thinking about her own problems ("[Anne] paid me ten bucks a day to bring homework to Francesca. Until my mom found a new job, it was buying groceries."). The cult around Francesca grows. Some people see her as a way to make money, others as their last hope for life -- for themselves or for their children. And as Francesca loses her sense of who she is, those around her learn who they are: For her mother, for Chester, for Sid, the situation presents problems they never thought they'd have, decisions they never thought they'd face, and temptations they couldn't have imagined.

"The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn" poignantly explores the conflict between rationality and religion, between what we call ordinary and what we call holy. When Chester is offered medication that can cure him of his unusual sense of smell, that could calm him enough to make living in a house tolerable again, at first he can reflect only on the potential loss: "I thought of all the holy people throughout history . . . and what the world would have been like if they'd all been given medication to make them ordinary. There would have been less suffering, but I couldn't imagine a world without saints or madmen." Many other writers would have tried to answer the question "Is it better to be a saint or live an ordinary life?" Janis Hallowell is wise enough to know it's unanswerable.

The religious novel has had a spotty record in the past couple of decades. Ron Hansen's "Mariette in Ecstasy" is a work of considerable power and mystery, but those qualities are tamed, rendered safe, by the remoteness of time and setting, a turn-of-the-century convent. Any promise in John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" died stillborn, a victim of the author's adolescent gimmickyness and ham-handed preaching. Devoid of religious dogma or pat answers, "The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn" dares us to imagine mystery in our lives, in our time. It's a book that sends us away refreshed, with the potential to see the sacramental in the everyday.

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