Kelly Kerney '02 can't wait to come back to Maine.

"I didn't see the ocean until I was 17," Kerney, an Ohio native and resident of Richmond, Virginia, said in an interview with the Orient. "I had never been to New England before visiting Bowdoin, and the rocks and the coast were surreal. When you're feeling like you're living somewhere beautiful, it helps when you're trying to make some kind of art."

Kerney will get a chance to return to Maine and present her art, her debut novel "Born Again," at a book reading on October 4. The reading will be at 4 p.m. in the Main Lounge at Moulton Union.

The novel has received critical acclaim from numerous publications, including a slot for a "New York Times" book review in October. Kerney worked closely with Writer-in-Residence Anthony Walton while at Bowdoin, earned a fellowship at the University of Notre Dame's graduate school, and also had a post-graduate fellowship with romance novelist Nicholas Sparks.

"Born Again" follows Mel, a devout Pentecostal Revivalist living in Slow Rapids, Indiana, and the poster child of her church. She posts flyers condemning teen sex, is a Bible Quiz champion, and campaigns to save the souls of her unbelieving friends. However, when an advanced academic summer camp requires her to read "Origin of Species," Mel forges a permission slip from her evangelical parents in order to see if she can "slay Darwin with scripture."

Instead, Mel begins to re-examine her own beliefs about her religion, her life, and her dysfunctional family. Kerney describes Mel's spiritual disillusionment in a realistic, humorous style, as the clever heroine questions the validity of the Bible and discovers that her parents aren't perfect.

Mel, who observes that she "didn't like a lot of these people who were supposedly going to Heaven, especially [her Bible study teacher]," is a curious, funny character, whom audiences will enjoy rooting for. Kerny's authentic description of Mel's struggles makes her attempts to reconcile her religion with evolution a compelling, insightful story.

Mel's interactions with her anarchist brother Jared, wayward older sister Kyle, and obsessive-compulsive mother, are less compelling than her inner struggle. As the story advances, the first-time novelist seems to have difficulty keeping these auxiliary interactions from overshadowing the central theme of Mel's religious crisis.

In the end, Mel is unable to choose between Darwin and her faith, leaving readers with only the inconclusive idea that "Origin of Species" "didn't even matter anymore." Frustrating as it is, this nebulous ending feels fitting. In a world where being a Christian is about "caring for people who would just as soon spit in your face" and evolution means betraying your family, there are no easy answers.

For Kerney, the novel began as "a bad short story." After realizing that she could further develop the story, Kerney wrote a scene every day. She credited her self-motivated work ethic to her graduate work and her studies with Walton. Kerney later took independent studies with him, but Walton began giving her outside reading and response papers while she was still in his regular classes.

"He kept giving me work to see if I would do it," Kerney said. "I loved it. I hadn't read contemporary literature or poetry before, and seeing a familiar world in poetry was amazing."

Bowdoin's size also played a role in Kerney's development as a writer. "I was lucky to be raised in literature, working closely with professors and having the resources to do it," she said.

Now that she has received praise and rave reviews for her debut novel, Kerney has already started working on her next novel.

"It's unruly," she said, "but it's not 'Born Again 2.'"

To keep her mind and her writing fresh, Kerney keeps a balance in what she writes. In addition to fiction, Kerney also works on poetry and short stories.

"I go in waves between fiction and poetry. One's such a lovely break from the other," she said.

Surprisingly, considering the praise from critics for "Born Again," Kerney never thought that she would write a novel. Just like that first view of the Maine ocean, the experience must be surreal.