Christ's passion. Resurrection. Grace. Ministry. Saint days and the liturgy. These are not the usual themes of popular novels. But they are precisely the themes tackled by Gail Godwin in this, her eighth novel.

Godwin's last work of fiction, A Southern Family, spent two months on the New York Times bestseller list. A Mother and Two Daughters and The Finishing School were also popular successes. This one, perhaps because it so overtly "religious," has not received as much attention.

It should. Father Melancholy's Daughter is a radiant work of art that shines with insights into family, parent-child relationships, ministry, and grace.

Margaret Gower, the title character, is the daughter of an Episcopalian priest who suffers from bouts of depression. His parishioners in a North Carolina town are less concerned about his melancholy than they are interested in his missing wife.

When Margaret was six years old, she returned from school one day to learn that her mother, Ruth, had left home with a female college friend, a set designer for the theatre. The departure was completely unexpected. Ruth was killed in an automobile accident within a year, and neither her husband nor child ever knew if she might have eventually come back had she lived. The two survivors spend 16 years dealing with the questions attached to this central event in their lives.

Margaret grows up collecting stories about runaway mothers, trying to understand. She becomes her father's caretaker, confidant, and student as he fights his depressions and deals with the petty politics of his small parish.

Then, during Easter week of Margaret's senior year in college, Father Gower finds his traditional ministry under attack — literally — from the pressures of the town's development. Margaret comes home to witness the playing out of the passion story in a new and vitally relevant context, both communally and personally.

Adrian, another minister in town, observes that original sin could be seen as having "something to do with repeating our parents' mistakes." This leads Father Gower in his Holy Week meditations to observe that Christ's passion reflects the different stages of pain, disappointment, suffering, and grief in our lives. The believer plays out the passion in his or her own autobiography.

Gail Godwin's religious perspective permeates every layer of this storyline. "Resurrection applies to each of us," Father Gower asserts. It means "coming up through what you were born into, then understanding objectively the people your parents were and how they influenced you," and then going beyond deterministic psychology to action in the present moment. "You have to find out what you are in the human drama, or body of God. The what beyond the who, so to speak."

At one point in the story, this challenge seems insurmountable to Margaret. "How can you finish with being a daughter," she wonders, "when you don't know who your mother really was?"

Still, there are surprises around every bend, and Margaret searches them for meaning. "Was the unpredictable aspect of life one of the corners of existence where Ultimate Reality hides? Couldn't it be that the unpredictable was one of the methods God used, again and again, eon after eon, to stretch our minds toward his?" After a trip to England with an unlikely companion, she discovers her own calling in life.

Father Melancholy's Daughter is a rare and remarkable novel, one that is resplendent with respect for the mysteries of God and love for the human adventure in the family of faith.