The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers
I chose this book, not because it was about a cleaner, since cleaning is a task I abhor, but because of the cathedral. I have been intrigued by it ever since a friend gifted me a beautiful hand-sewn version of the labyrinth copied from the historical Chartres Cathedral. I couldn’t resist a story set in such a beautiful place and this story is every bit as intriguing as the fabled cathedral.
Agnès Morel has touched the lives of all who know her in the French town of Chartres; however no one really knows her past including Abbé Paul who found Agnès sleeping on one of the cathedral porches 20 years ago. Since then, Agnès has led a simple life, quietly showing kindness to others, cleaning the medieval cathedral, at times sitting for a local artist, and doing various other odd jobs for the townspeople.
For Agnès, life began with abandonment on January 21st, St. Agnès’ Day. A farmer found the newborn in the woods, wrapped in a tablecloth, lying in a basket. Inside the basket was a single silver and turquoise earring, possibly the only connection to the baby’s birth mother. The farmer took the baby to The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy where Agnès was more or less raised by nuns.
In her present-day life Agnès has many friends. Her quiet unassuming ways have endeared her to Abbé Paul and Abbé Bernard of the cathedral. Her cheeky friend Terry is the opposite personality wise, but she would do anything for Agnès. Alain, a young restorer working on refurbishing parts of the cathedral, is attracted to Agnès. The professor Agnès works for has only praise for her organizational skills. But her mysterious past draws the attention of the local gossips, dissatisfied with their own lives and bent on making someone else miserable, or at the very least creating a distraction to cover their own secrets.
Details of Agnès’ past, some true, some taken out of context, are brought to light by those with less than noble intentions. The secrets are carried forth from person to person, until they threaten the life Agnès has built for herself.
The story is told through alternating chapters past and present, focusing on each person’s connection or interaction with Agnès. For some reason I had trouble picturing the story set in 1994, and had to keep correcting my mental image of the characters to align with the dialogue—my issue, not the author’s.Vickers clearly reveals things are not always what they appear and demonstrates the cathartic power of redemption.
Although a work of fiction, it caused me to think about how often we listen to gossip or speculate on the barest of details; what it says about people in general and how we sort the inherent good and evil in all of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and find a couple days out, I still catch myself thinking about the last few pages of this book.
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