The novelist Susan Howatch has had an unpredictable career. Publishing her first book in her mid-twenties, she made her name as a prolific writer of genre fiction—family sagas, gothic tales, and other such with Masterpiece Theater-style historical settings and a strong vein of romance. Few readers could have anticipated the turn she took next with the Starbridge series, a set of six novels ranging from the 1930s to the late 20th century and focusing on clerics in the Church of England. With this series Howatch single-handedly revived the moribund genre of ecclesiastical fiction, winning a wide readership especially among diverse Christian groups.

Her latest book, The Heartbreaker, is the third novel in a new series spun off from Starbridge. Here the focus is on the Healing Centre, an unconventional institution in the heart of London, where spiritual, psychological, and physical healing are integrated.

The new series includes some of the characters avid fans already know and love—or hate—from the Starbridge sequence. Here, as in the earlier series, Howatch fleshes out diverse theological positions that are not only debated but change lives in the course of the books. Here too Howatch excels at creating characters that are strikingly individual and psychologically complex. And to a degree unmatched in contemporary fiction, she depicts the disciplines of confession, spiritual direction, and repentance in the development of the characters over the years as well as the occasional miracle of God.

The two previous novels, The Wonder Worker and The High Flyer, introduce Father Nick Darrow, director of the Healing Centre, a spiritual director who possesses the gift of laser-like insight. Father Nick has been a source of strength for ...

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