The Book: A Question of Integrity (Little, Brown, pounds 16.99). Alice, a dowdy agnostic cook, runs across a Church-based "healing centre" in the City and falls under the spell of an oddball, charismatic priest-therapist. Romance, mystery (and plenty of unholy rolling) ensue as she tangles with vicious vicars and hysterical healers amid beetle-browed debates on God, mind and matter.
The Deal: Her Anglican conversion, 15 years ago, gave Howatch a commercial boost that proves you can do well by doing good. The Salisbury-set "Starbridge" series of six bestsellers permed Trollope (Anthony and Joanna) with Orbach as New Age met New Testament. They pushed her sales beyond eight million. In 1992, she unloaded a round million of her cash to endow a Cambridge chair studying science-theology relations.
The Goods: A Question of Integrity decants the trusty Starbridge themes into an urban setting but the mood stays much the same. Mills & Boon-ish elements (saturnine clerics, louche liaisons, dreams of passion with brooding Darcy-ish blokes) sit strangely alongside the earnest wrangles over CofE theology, health and illness, and the quest for wholeness in a broken world. The healers sink "up to our dog-collars in a grade-A clerical nightmare", as Alice comes to grips with God, Sex and all stations in between.
The Verdict: Unbelievers (in the author or the 39 Articles) may treat all this as a bizarre collision between This Life and Father Ted. But Howatch's keen eye for pop spirituality and heady willingness to fling arcane points of faith into her stew of roguery and rumpy-pumpy compel a happy (-clappy) suspension of disbelief. As a way to make Anglicanism cool - or even hot - her tomes knock those dodgy Techno-Vicars into a cocked mitre.
The Alternative: Anglican attitudes
1/ Anthony Trollope, The Barsetshire Chronicles: Patron saint of cassock- rippers.
2/ Mary Loudon, Revelations: Eye-opening interviews with good, bad (and weird) vicars.
3/ Alan Bennett, "A Chip in the Sugar" from Talking Heads: Small but perfectly-formed expose of fear and loathing at the vicarage.
4/ Catherine Fox, The Benefits of Passion: Some sharp new competition for Trollope (J)