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A Severe Mercy

4.32  ·  Rating Details ·  10,506 Ratings  ·  738 Reviews

Beloved, profoundly moving account of the author's marriage, the couple's search for faith and friendship with C. S. Lewis, and a spiritual strength that sustained Vanauken after his wife's untimely death.

Paperback, 239 pages
Published April 19th 1979 by Bantam Books (first published January 1st 1977)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Peyton Smith
Apr 30, 2008 Peyton Smith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Trying to condense this book into a tiny review will be rather difficult for me. This is THE FIRST book I recommend to anyone in any conversation any time literature comes up. By turns this book is one of the most romantic, beautifully written, intellectually stimulating, and downright entertaining books I've ever held in my two hands. For months after I finished the book I would see it sitting on my desk and grow sad thinking of how much I missed time with Sheldon and Davie. Countless times I'v ...more
Debbie Petersen
Aug 17, 2008 Debbie Petersen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 03, 2009 booklady rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: couples deeply in love; converts; those suffering the loss of a beloved
Recommended to booklady by: Karen L.
A Severe Mercy can almost be called a foreshadowing of A Grief Observed. But of course that is only from our perspective looking back on the four lives involved. Sheldon Vanauken wrote A Severe Mercy about the love of his life, Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis. It's a beautiful love story, one of the most idyllic I've ever read, perhaps too idyllic, but poignant and breathtaking all the same. The book traces their relationship from courtship through the early pagan (the author's term) years of marriage ...more
Jan 14, 2014 Josh added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Josh by: Sarah Baker
I hated these people for much of the book, though I feel bad for that now. Ridiculous in their idealism. Tried to establish principles to live by, and broke other principles in establishing those. Also incorporated convenient traditional and Christian principles to support the ones they already wanted to follow. Then they broke those when convenient, often without noticing (but with me noticing, margin-scrawling in crumbling pencil).

Also this story was about romantic love, and I only like that w
K.D. Absolutely
Thanks to Tata J for lending me another unforgettable book! This is the second love story that made me cry (honest). The first third of the book is your typical Nicholas Sparks story. It actually reminds me of The Notebook so as I thought it would be an easy read, I continued on. On the second part (after The Shining Barrier), C. S. Lewis as introduced. It had the feeling of a religious book and I got a bit thrown out and started complaining to my wife that the book is boring. However, this earl ...more
Sylvain Reynard
Jan 10, 2011 Sylvain Reynard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is the story of a remarkable and true love story between the author and his wife. Their paths lead them to Yale and then to Oxford, where they become friends with C.S. Lewis. Eventually, they end up in Lynchburg, VA, when Vanauken becomes a professor of English at Lynchburg College.

A line from this book ended up in one of my favourite Bruce Cockburn songs, "Fascist Architecture." See if you can find it.
May 27, 2016 Sarah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: re-reading
This is my second re-reading, first in my late teens and now in my early twenties. It has meant so much more to me now, this second time. Such a beautiful, unforgettable and yet terribly hard story. It's been a long time since I've cried so much over a book. I loved "the Shining Barrier"- what an image! I loved seeing Lewis as the faithful and (at times) painfully honest friend.
From the last chapter:
"When he [Lewis] died, I remembered his great shout across the Oxford High Street: 'Christians N
May 06, 2007 Sarah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
This book is amazing. Anyone who has really loved someone, or aspires to real love will take so much from this. It also has some beautiful things to say about grief and loss. Poetically written and so inspired!
Sherwood Smith
I've had a somewhat ambivalent reaction to this book, which some friends have praised highly, reading it over and over, and others have regarded with extreme skepticism, even derision (usually in those who can't stand C.S. Lewis).

The beginning is a description of a passionate love affair so all-consuming that it reads claustrophobic, even obsessive. Though the author describes how he and his wife "Davy" came gradually to Christianity through letters to and from C.S. Lewis, it reads to me as if h
Aug 24, 2007 Beth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: reflective readers, the romantic, the grieving, even the skeptic of Christianity.
Shelves: walk-of-faith
The first half plus of the book I found enchanting and enriching. It was eye-opening to me as an on-looker at the beauty of relationships between man and woman, of the mystery of God’s drawing grace and penetration of skepticism (with some real kickers from Lewis about the threshold or leap of faith…see pg. 88). There is true depth and a special resonance with much of Vanauken’s musings for me, such as his thoughts of beauty. It seems to strike a human tone—many things in his book. After Davy’s ...more
Jan 06, 2011 Gail rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was given this book after the sudden death of a good friend. Anyone who has loved and lost will relate to Sheldon, an incredible writer and observer, and have difficulty not shedding a few more tears. Sheldon got to a depth of feeling and humanity that I didn't expect in expressing love. I think many would be jealous of a couple who managed to stay in the summer of their love for 15 years and wish for their own "Shining Barrier" to ward off anything that would harm love's growth. Fans of C.S. ...more
Sep 05, 2016 Trish rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mmd-2016
I struggled with this book. I really enjoyed the letters from C.S. Lewis, but Vanauken's writing - and even his story in general - left me cold. There were a few well-written passages, but overall he was far too wordy and his descriptions of his virtually perfect wife and their life together seemed ridiculous, and finishing the book was not a joyful endeavor.

He reminds me of that guy you avoid at functions - he's got some good stories, but he talks on far too long and has a very high opinion of
Sep 02, 2014 Ruth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My reaction to this book has been mixed. If not recommended to me by a very good friend whose judgment I trust, I probably would not have persevered past the first one fourth of the book. Not because of the writing, which is of excellent quality, but because of my frustration with the idealistic couple in their youth: all of their naive confidence in their Shining Barrier grated against something inside me. But then came their time in Oxford and all that came after it, and I began to understand ...more
Jul 16, 2010 Katharine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 13, 2015 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a lovely memoir which is half love story, one quarter faith story, and one quarter story about the author's exchange of letters with C.S. Lewis. The most interesting and unique aspect of the book was Vanauken's description of the oneness that he and his wife carefully planned and largely realized for a while. They called the concept the Shining Barrier--their way of living which would guard their love above all else because any sort of separation could constitute a wedge between them.
Rachel Bishop
Jan 02, 2015 Rachel Bishop rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Told with such sincerity, the author's love story is unlike any I've heard before. Vanauken's prose is exquisite--a delight to read. I would recommend it to any romantic, to any academically-minded believer, to any living soul. This is one I'll read again and again.
Benjamin Sigrist
Feb 16, 2010 Benjamin Sigrist rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-read-again
Beautiful... Story of finding love, exploring that love, finding God, balancing (or not) that faith with human love, and then human love lost. This is a love story, which I am not prone to enjoy. But Vanauken is so expressive in his language that it fueled me to continue on. This is one for me to read again. Some quotes:

"The actual thing - inloveness - requires something like a spark leaping back and forth from one to the other becoming more intense every moment, love building up like voltage in
Mar 18, 2008 Mikejencostanzo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Elizabeth Moore
Apr 23, 2013 Elizabeth Moore rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Severe mercy. That’s a rather chilling way to describe something containing so much hope and freedom.

Mercy can often be misunderstood, thrown down and trampled upon by our raw emotions. How can something so good cost so much? Isn’t mercy the act of setting free; a pardon from a much deserved punishment? Why then this sting? Could it be that mercy comes at a high price? Perhaps. And if so, does it come at the expense of the giver or the receiver?

I’m not here to answer these questions. I would
J. Alfred
Oct 01, 2012 J. Alfred rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have a lot to say about this book, so I offer congratulations and a hearty pat on the back to anyone who reaches the end of the review. Now then:
Summary: this is the story of two wildly intelligent persons who fall in love, go to Oxford, meet my hero C.S. Lewis, and become Christians. Then Davy, the wife, dies from a terrible lingering disease. Scene.
As far as romance goes: by both poetic and theological (as a Calvinist, I believe that my wife and I were literally created for each other) incli
Nov 08, 2009 Katy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was lent to me by a very dear friend. It's not a book I would normally read. It's interesting because at the beginning of the book, I was kind of irritated by the author and his views on the purpose of life and his ideas of what love should be like. Rather than finding it romantic, I thought a relationship of his type would be suffocating and obsessive! Still, I plowed along. I enjoyed the boating and the conversion to Christianity and the great insights from his friend, C.S. Lewis. I ...more
Reagan Ramsey
Dec 19, 2007 Reagan Ramsey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorite-books
I absolutely loved this book. It is one of the most amazing love stories I've ever read, because they're such intellectual equals to start with. They don't just fall in love with each other, they want to fall in love with all the things that interest and appeal to the other. It gives you hope in the power of unconditional love.
And the second half is even more powerful and profound, when they move to Oxford and meet C.S. Lewis, the wife becomes a Christian and the husband struggles with his huma
Aug 11, 2007 Elise rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book that I absolutely love, about a couple who decide to live with their love as their God. It's a pretty amazing relationship, and along the way, they encounter the Living God. It's such a lovely story (and it's true!) and heartbreaking at the same time.
The only caveat is that the beginning of the book is dreadfully slow. I urge anyone who starts reading this book to press on past Sheldon's little stroll down memory land, and wait for the good stuff.
And, as an added bonus, our good
This is not the great love story the author clearly thinks it is - it's an unhealthy love story, obsessive and self-centered. The book is also, possibly, maybe-just-a-little bit show-offy in a "look what good friends I was with CS Lewis" way.

That's not to say it's not worth reading (it is), or isn't interesting (it is.) For a picture of conversion and a raw look at grief, it's worth the short time you'll spend reading.

Katherine's review mirrors my thoughts almost exactly, so I'll let her words
Lydia Lengel
Jan 30, 2016 Lydia Lengel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
REALLY enjoyed this book and discussing it with our dinner/book club. It is a relatively short book, but don't expect to read it quickly. It brings you to the depths... challenging you to think about idolatrous love, new faith, God's mercy, and severe grief. It's a deep, worldly love story that leads you into the Ultimate Love story. Vanauken is a poet and his writing style very much reflects that (plus he includes many poems he authored). The insight from personal letters from C.S. Lewis is pri ...more
Hannah Christmas
I read this book based off of a few quotes I had read on an Instagram account. I had never heard of it or the author, but if you know me, seeing that C.S. Lewis makes an appearance in this story is what hooked me. Reading what Sheldon Vanauken's story was about and his relationship with his wife, I knew this was going to be beautiful.

First of all, if you read this book, you have to start it knowing that (a) This is a true story, so Vanauken is writing this as memories. When you read non-fiction
A few things I'll say here for posterity:

Here's a nit-picky complaint: Vanauken speaks from a painful place of privilege. To be clear, I am NOT someone who thinks privilege taints a person; there's an idea, perpetuated mostly by contemporary feminists, that having privilege (being a white, rich, Christianized male) means one's take on the world is irrelevant since their experience has been too cushy to warrant consideration. This is not what I mean when I describe Vanauken's privilege as "painfu
Matt Anderson
This book was recommended to me by one of my good friends, and I'm glad he did recommend it. It was a wonderful read, and a very moving book. In this autobiography, Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of his adult life, specifically in regards to his wife, Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis.

The story opens at Davy's gravestone, and Sheldon then flashes backwards in time to tell us of how he met and fell in love with Davy. We get glimpses into their romance and deep love. Along the way, Sheldon and Davy meet
Rachel Crooks
Feb 27, 2010 Rachel Crooks rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although I got irritated with Vanauken's self-congratulatory narrative style, in the end I found that he allowed the joke to be on him, which I liked him better for :), and which truly made this story great.
The story begins with the author's marriage to Davy, who is his best friend. Early on, the couple decides at all cost to preserve their "inloveness": to let nothing come between them - not material possessions, or other people, or even personal selfishness - they decide that if either has a
Dec 29, 2008 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The writing style of this book is similar to that of C.S. Lewis (perhaps minus some of the humor), who was a good friend of the author. Included are many letters from Lewis, which add to the character of the book.

I found this book to be greatly enriching. The language and style I enjoyed (though I admit I am not a great judge of writing quality), but it was the content drawn from the author's life and the depth of his reflections on his experiences that gave such richness to the book.

The book l
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LOVE: Self vs Other 1 8 Oct 11, 2014 01:36PM  
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“It is, I think, that we are all so alone in what lies deepest in our souls, so unable to find the words, and perhaps the courage to speak with unlocked hearts, that we don't know at all that it is the same with others.” 59 likes
“A man in the jungle at night, as someone said, may suppose a hyena's growl to be a lion's; but when he hears the lion's growl, he knows damn well it's a lion.” 22 likes
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