Although Therese Martin may be loved by millions and revered as a saint by many, the fact is she was a human being and subject to nature and nurture in her formative years as all human being are. In this exceptional biography, Harrison explores many facets of Therese's entire life and history and, in my opinion, gives a very compelling, fair and realistic presentation of who Therese was, what shaped her into the woman - and later saint - she became, and what motivated her personal sense of passion and purpose in life that is viewed by many as a model of religious piety, perfection and purity to this day. I emphasize though that the focus is on Therese Martin, not so much the "St. Therese" she would later become after death and upon canonization.
It is for this reason that I can see why some who wish to transcend Therese's humanity and see her only as an untouchable and iconic saint would be disappointed in this book. Harrison makes Therese very real to the reader and focuses on her humanity and the possibilities of what may have made her tick based on insightful and grounded interpretations of the numerous family letters, documented testimony given at Therese's beatification after her death by her sisters and surviving family members as well as others who knew her, and clues given as revelation to support Harrison's biographical portrayal of the inner person with the use of Therese's own words.
And yes, Harrison does view Therese's life through the lens of modern day research, logic, fact and psychology rather than the more superstitious or supernatural perception that contemporaries in Therese's day might have viewed similar - but I think that's what makes this biography so wonderful. I came away feeling I "knew" Therese in a way that I highly doubt I ever could just viewing her as a archetypal image of "Saint" - and I think that's the point. Therese didn't start out as a Saint. It was who she was and what she did in her 24 incarnate years that gave rise to the desire and official act of canonizing her as such.
In addition, historic context is given so that the reader can get a better sense of what cultural factors went into shaping her into the person she was. I found this exceptionally fascinating because, nowadays, I'm of the opinion that many teenage girls who exhibit similar behavior and attitudes Therese demonstrated to be unrealistically perfectionistic and whom would be deemed likely candidates for such behaviors such as cutting, anorexia, bipolar disorder, intimacy issues, extreme acting out, etc. and who wish to stay little girls forever for fear of embracing their own maturity, sexuality and autonomy. But in Therese's day and in Therese's view via her own words - as well as those around her who served to both influence and support her mentally, emotionally and spiritually - martyrdom and masochistic suffering was seen as supremely beautiful and holy and her purposeful intent on remaining childlike in so many respects seems to lend itself to the perception that she was and remained innocent, pure and virtuous. I'm not implying that Therese was anorexic or that she cut herself - nor does Harrison even remotely suggest this - but Therese did view physical self-mortification and self-injury in a psychic sense as proof and example of holiness and beauty and a way to demonstrate willing self-sacrifice to her beloved, Christ: did despise her own flesh; did take supreme joy in her own suffering and the illness that would eventually take her life; did push herself to embrace what she reviled, recoiled from and initially resisted; did expect a lot from herself and was merciless in her own self-expectations and self-criticism when she fell short in her own eyes; and did exhibit attitudes that, for a young woman in her 20's, were amazingly infantile, immature and the stuff of fluffy romance novels or fairy tales with an emphasis on courtly - but unrealistic - love with a religious flair. Also, I found Therese to be a bit of a paradox (but what person isn't?) and found myself wondering how conscious she was about much of what she did. Supposedly her aim was to be "nothing" but her focus on becoming nothing is exactly what drew attention to her and made her "something." It makes one wonder if this might have been her unconscious desire that, based on her values, she could not allow herself to acknowledge even to herself.
Some could view these as examples as exemplary religious behavior while others may see them as extreme, strange a perhaps a bit on the twisted side - but I feel Harrison lets the judgment of beauty or lack thereof remain in the eye of the beholder - the reader - without unduly attempting to bias or influence with opinions of her own slanted one way or another.
And while some may view Harrison's treatment of Therese to be too psychoanalytic and perhaps not reverent enough, it was this very reason that I gravitated to this book and found the biography thoroughly interesting. I do not think Harrison's analysis went overboard though, nor do I feel the approach detracts at all from the notion that there was something unique about Therese to warrant many to feel she had qualities in accordance with what I gather Catholics view to be saintly. However, not being a Catholic myself, yet fascinated by notable people in general - especially those who demonstrate or are revered as spiritual exceptionals no matter the religious or spiritual path they follow - I was very pleased to learn more about Therese in a way that made her real, tangible and human rather than viewing her at a idealistic distance atop an unreachable shelf of a pedestal. As I said, I came away feeling I "knew" Therese in a way that I would best be able to relate to her - human to human. And I suspect this is why I found the biography to be exceptional. I have no idea how to relate to St. Therese, but I can say that the reality of Therese Martin as a human being, based on what I gained from reading this book, is fascinating and thought provoking.