Joanna Rose’s novel, A Small Crowd of Strangers, asks and answers the age-old question: “What happens if I marry the wrong person?” Rose paints a quaint life for Pattianne Anthony—a small town librarian with a casual sex life, a smoking habit, and a family that communicates with a series of unspoken words, if they communicate at all. All of that changes when she meets Michael Bryn, the choir boy who can do no wrong. Rose takes us on a spiritual journey with Pattianne as we begin to see that sometimes religion and identity can become one and the same.
Rose deftly weaves religious symbolism throughout the plot to give the reader a glimpse at the inner demons plaguing Pattianne’s marriage. The most blatant of these depictions happens when Pattianne notices several religious idols, starting with the crucifix Michael has placed in their new bedroom: “what else she saw was the dark wooden crucifix, hung above the bedroom door . . . she didn’t like that crucifix being there”. We revisit the symbol throughout the duration of their marriage in moments of contemplation for Pattianne. As the truth creeps in on her, she continues to see more crucifixes outside of their home. A symbol that once would’ve been glossed over has turned ominous; it haunts her, like a ghost waiting to be noticed, an undeniable truth waiting to be acknowledged.
All of these seemingly inconsequential moments come to the forefront when Pattianne removes the idol from their bedroom:
“The crucifix had to come down. She wanted it gone . . . The face of Jesus was shiny, as if it had been touched again and again over the years. The rest of him was a tarnished bronze. There may be a right way to hold a crucifix. She wrapped her fingers around the face and went after the nail with the claw end of the hammer. She tossed the crucifix on the bed”.
As the sun bathes the Virgin of the Dashboard in light, Pattianne’s inner battle rages on. “Throw the Virgin of the Dashboard out the window. Then go get her. Smell the burning stink in the fine morning air . . . Words in the wisping black cloud, too, and the long line across the windshield was a blank space where a dash had replaced an expletive above the Virgin’s spot”. The more she learns about Michael’s devotion, the harder it is to deny their differences. The stalled car, throwing the Virgin then putting her back, are representative of Pattianne’s internal back-and-forth and inability to make a decision.