It’s 2018, and labeling and categorizing identities are as much a part of modern living as breathing. Blair Hurley’s debut novel, The Devoted, puts a spiritual spin on the subject: a woman’s search for enlightenment twined with escape from the manipulations of her Zen Buddhist Master.
Hurley is no novice to writing about the traditions and trappings of Buddhism. Among her many publishing accolades, she won a Pushcart Prize for her short story “The Home for Buddhist Widows,” published in West Branch in spring 2016. Her hand is confident and steady as she layers Zen teachings into the already complicated history of her novel’s focal character.
The Devoted follows Nicole Hennessey, a Boston native whose life for the last ten years has revolved around her practice in a Buddhist Zendo—and its charismatic Master. She’s going nowhere career-wise in a discount shoe store, her brother Paul’s name is the only one in her address book, and she’s sexually and emotionally trapped by the man sworn to help her find spiritual solace. She heads to New York, hoping for a fresh start. In a tale that is partly a walk through a difficult past and partly the navigation of an uncertain present, Nicole fights to define herself away from the molding touch of her Master.
Hurley’s storytelling guides you through Nicole’s most indecisive and vulnerable moments. The scenes shift fluidly over and over again from the current timeline to adolescent memories and reflections on koans (Zen Buddhist riddles). Nicole’s answers to her New York friend’s questions take the story back in time to a cross-country road trip, teenaged fumbling on a basement couch, or the temple room of an Asian art exhibit. They’re admissions, confessions, and Hurley has a remarkably deft manner of overlapping different points in Nicole’s life from one paragraph to another. By the end of the book, you’ll have gone through several crucial events in the lead character’s life without feeling disoriented by the speed at which it happens.
A native Bostonian like her protagonist, Hurley breathes life into winter nights in the Common, into the run-down apartment buildings near Boston University, into the kitschy streets of central Waltham. Nicole is a New Englander to the core, and each sidewalk in her childhood home resonates with her memories. When she arrives in New York, “the skyline, a crowded network of lights, jumbled buildings—internal, unknown Brooklyn” and the wildly divergent uptown and downtown of Manhattan serve more as a backdrop for her to share her story alongside the more tangible landscape of metropolitan Massachusetts.
Dark moments and uncomfortable situations abound. Through her childhood and teen years, Nicole dealt with the mixed consequences of abandoning her Irish Catholic upbringing. Resignation and awkwardness, embarrassment, and the painful realization that a Hail Mary doesn’t solve everything—the emotions are palpable on the page. “Catholic magic is very strong,” a pastor tells her. But it’s a magic from within that Nicole needs.
It’s become something of a millennial trademark to actively seek out purpose and a sense of self. When Nicole chooses Buddhism over Catholicism—an Eastern-based belief over a Western-originating religion— it is a clash between orthodox religious views and what her family considers mysticism. Hurley glosses over color and cultural difference in favor of focusing on Nicole’s struggles as an individual. Nicole sees and accepts her difference from her peers and strives for a balance between her beliefs and her various relationships.
Her practice causes strain in her relationship with her family. Her father danced around the issue before passing away. Her mother goes from inviting over members of the congregation to have tea at the family home to turning her head away when Nicole stammers to pastors that she’s long left the Catholic Church. Paul stands her staunch protector, though their relationship is fraying at the edges and his wife refuses to let Nicole talk about Buddhism to their children. The specter of her runaway days with her teen boyfriend Jules and the disastrous end to her quest to meet the Karmapa linger in the back of her mind. Hurley builds Nicole’s story around compounding trauma and a sense of otherness from her churchgoing peers. Through Zen Buddhism, which relies heavily on intimate training and the passing along of personal experience from Master to student, Nicole reaches for something to center herself. When she enters a new Zendo in New York, she awakens to the possibility that she could be a teacher herself, if she can break away from her Master—who somehow knows every move she makes in her new city.
Though her Master appears mostly in flashbacks, his presence in Nicole’s present life is palpable. It’s in part thanks to him that she’s come so far in her practice. His hold over her is strong, not only as her mentor, but also as her lover of nearly ten years. Nicole’s stark awareness of this hold gives it additional weight. The Master-student bond, she has been taught, lasts a lifetime.
She knew her Master needed her, the way a teacher with no student is no teacher at all. There were things they shared: intimacies that come from years of sleeping together, accepting each other’s bodies again and again. They were an old married couple, childless perhaps, a fruitless, pointless union, but a union nevertheless. The cement of years sealing the cracks.
Her Master reels her in, in the hypnotic way of a cult leader, preying on the wisps of her self-doubt and her need to be good. He twists their private lessons to incorporate sex, as though his possessive lovemaking were part of leading her onto the path of enlightenment. Is there something wrong in being intimate with a man who helps her achieve such heights of self-awareness? To Nicole, this is just another facet of his hold on her. She must break away from it all.
In the snippets Hurley presents of the Master’s perspective, he believes more and more fervently that Nicole is his best and ultimate pupil. In his increasingly bold and forceful encroachment on her new life, his desperation to reel her back in grows obvious.
Nicole fights between the ideas of love and stagnation. Her struggle could not be simpler and more complicated at once: what do you do when you meet the Buddha on the road? It’s a fight that neither Paul nor anyone else who cares about her can help her with. What Nicole seeks is normalcy, a state of normalcy where she can accept herself and her circumstances and be accepted by those around her in return—her own personal Way.
The Devoted is a personal journey. Who you are informs your reading experience. Hurley leaves you thinking and sorting through feelings long after her final page.