Review: 'Our Lady of the Prairie' is a striking novella within a novel

Thisbe Nissen’s stunning and original debut story collection, “Out of the Girls’ Room and into the Night,” won the 1999 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was published by University of Iowa Press. The book was reprinted (though some stories were left out) by Vintage the next year. The book remains one of my favorite story collections, and since reading it, I have followed her career avidly.

The graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop followed up with her first novel, “The Good People of New York,” in 2001, co-authored 2002’s quirky “The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook,” and released her second novel, “Osprey Island,” in 2004.

And then there was something of a pause. Nissen’s long-awaited third novel, “Our Lady of the Prairie,” has just been released. Happily, it was worth the wait.

“Our Lady of the Prairie” is narrated by Phillipa Maakestad, a 50-year-old woman who upends her life by undermining her marriage just as her troubled daughter celebrates her wedding. Phillipa’s affair pulls her away from her family before events at home — in and around a fictionalized Iowa City — pull her back. Nissen explicitly nods to the “Wizard of Oz,” as great winds, metaphorical and actual, buffet Phillipa and those around her. Often Phillipa herself becomes the implacable destructive force tearing through the lives of those she loves.

The novel is set in late 2004 as President George W. Bush seeks reelection. The primary characters’ deeply felt objections to the president recreate that moment in our political history even as Nissen nods slyly to the reader who knows what the future holds.

Nissen is a risk-taker when it comes to shaping narratives, which has arguably been a hallmark of her work dating back to her story collection. In the middle of “Our Lady of the Prairie,” Phillipa conjures up a detailed potential history for her husband’s family. The extended passage, rendered in the third person, is a striking novella within the novel. It could distract from her primary story, but Nissen’s sure hand ensures that doesn’t happen. Instead, the story within the story stirs Phillipa’s empathy for a cantankerous character and offers perspective on the challenges she herself faces.

Phillipa’s story doesn’t read like a neatly constructed tale as Nissen captures the chaos and unpredictability of life. Phillipa struggles with her emotions and reversals of fortune — and makes questionable decisions that have varyingly severe consequences — in ways recognizable to all who realize our real lives are not, in fact, plot driven.

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“Our Lady of the Prairie” is consistently engaging and often moving, offering the welcome return of a unique literary voice.

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