Monday, October 09, 2017

We need to talk about "The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck" by Bethany Turner

I LOVE THIS AUTHOR and I WILL READ ANYTHING SHE WRITES FOREVER --- fyi. And she deserves a space in the Inspy writing and publishing world and she will continue to teach us about ourselves and encourage us to hold up a lens and look inside...

I read this book basically in one sitting (well two sittings on two different flights and over a layover) en route to Michigan to speak and sign and speak.   ( best weekend ever).

And I should preface by saying this is not Rachel catnip material --- at least when it comes to love story--- but it IS Rachel catnip material in that the author is a brilliantly competent one I can learn things from.  Reading as a writer is essential and there was so much that Turner can teach writers in any genre on plotting, pacing and interweaving backstory.

But, it wasn't a Rachel catnip book and isn't that wonderful and awesome!?? Because what may not be my cup of tea is EXACTLY WHAT YOU LOOK FOR IN STORIES AND ROMANTIC TROPES and that is why I think it is important for me to write about---- what I spell out may be your very favourite devices starring your very favourite kinds of romances and that is wonderful and that is why reading is diverse and taste is diverse and preference is diverse and that is the way it should be.

Also, I am being critical of these aspects from MY PERSONAL TASTE PROFILE --- so I cannot really say anything negative about them OTHER than from my personal preference.  The joy of individuality.

I am not at a position of any type of expertise --other than a long time reader. And what I find might be limiting in the book for non Christian readers; you might think could act as a gateway.  So we need to talk about this book.  It is a great stepping point for a lot of dialogue --especially for readers of inspirational fiction. And it is the best type of book to talk about because it was penned by a dizzyingly talented writer.

I also have faith based and non faith based readers and 60 % of my life is in a non-faith-based world, so I have to point a few things about this book as a general heads' up.  I personally feel this book is best enjoyed by people within a church setting or background because of its intense peer into Christian culture and the rules and restrictions therein.   Without ill-intention, I can see how the rules meted out by the heroine's friend Piper and Sarah's new church community might be seen as a point of judgment to readers though my personal opinion is that the author did not intend this.  This story, its publisher, its author are products of an environment where this is the norm.   I also point out that the word "butch" is used in a derogatory way and I was surprised that the editors of the novel didn't catch and edit that word which is becoming (thank heavens) quickly obsolete.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I also have to mention that in Sarah's journey, the conversion to Christianity finds her on the receiving end of advice that motivates her to reassess her writing in the secular romance world.   While reading, I thought of my many many many romance writing friends on the other side of the Christianese fence and the many romance books I love and the many authors I follow and found this could be read as polarizing.  The usual abstinence talks and alcohol free living talks followed and poor Piper almost made me roll my eyes with her initial holier than thou moments ushering the searching Sarah into the fold.  But Piper is a plot device and a portal and so I cannot quite fault her for being the mouthpiece for the more conservative sect of Christian culture in which this book dwells.  I also found that some of the issues in the novel might ostracize non-Christian readers beyond some of the rules and metrics laid out (and very very prevalent in many churches--- ). One ostracizing moment comes in the vernacular of tithing.  It is cute and funny and winsome that Turner explores the smutty novelist tithing her smutty novel's royalties; and beyond Ben's judgmental response ( throw something at him, women), I thought this was one instance of the rhetoric of one world that might not be accessible to all readers.

All right, disclosure time over, let's dive in!

To begin, I loved the heroine ---- I really didn't like the romance. It isn't my type at all.  But, as I mention later, it is integral to the construct of Turner's larger perspective and it works really well for the story she is trying to tell.  And while I didn't like the romance, I loved the romantic world and construct--- I loved the clash of secular and Christian romance and the open-eyed Sarah choosing to read CBA romance and pen her own.  This is the world so many of us read in and publish in and it is a safe space for me and I loved reading about it ( But, I also love chugging cab sauv and reading Tessa Dare and Elizabeth Hoyt so ...SO not the target reader of this book )

I hate insta love tropes and I never felt once I got to know Ben DeLaney--- but I did through his appearance get to know Sarah and  sacrificing his dimension gave me more time with her---she was my love of this book. Her voice, her perspective, her passion to find a way to patch up her life. Her terrible poetry. Her stream of consciousness. Even though we view the world differently. Another non-Rachel-catnip thing (and yes I know it is scriptural, bring it up to me as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb), is the obsession of a wedding and children.   Ben and Sarah just want insta family like their instalove.  In what is the first ever usage of this term I have ever seen in a lifetime of reading Inspy romances he wants to "knock her up" and they'll have a ton of kids..... For a lot of readers, that is going to be the happy ever after, and of course, it is an easy and safe way for an inspy romance writer to bring sex into the conversation. For a reader like me it is all: WHAT? but you have money and live in Chicago and are a great writer and .... ugh! you can still have sex without kids! Again, PERSONAL PREFERENCE--- my feminism radar was tingling. .... but then it was just MY radar that was tingling. I don't want to spend my life cleaning up after eight rug rats ---  But isn't feminism about choice? And shouldn't  a woman decide that this is her preference? Reader and Sarah alike? She wants a passel of rugrats and to ascribe to the more traditional approach to life with Ben and I am all for that because she wants it!  Choice, people. Choice!

I didn't ever feel like I got to know Ben at all: beyond "hot pastor who likes to kiss in the parking lot" (Which, FYI, is tantamount to scandal in the Christian sphere). And I sure as heck don't want a wedding where Song of Solomon is the theme du jour but that is me having a strong reaction to the world I grew up in where this is part and parcel of the game.  What Turner does well is finally shine the spotlight on the woman.   In church culture, women are physically the stumbling blocks.  The tight shirts, the yoga pants (insert eye roll and cursing here), the purity culture holds the woman to such a high platform. If a man stumbles it is nature,  if a woman stumbles it is a reflection of her character.  Sarah slices through this prevalent double standard by having a healthy sexual appetite even as she tweaks its perimeters to fit into her new Christian world.  And yes, when Ben and Sarah write out a list of rules about kissing and dating and time together ( we Christians have a lot of rules-- some Biblical-- most just ours ), I was saddened but also understanding.  This is the culture. This is a look at a very real culture. Sarah's experience clashes with the instinctive norm of the culture because she very legitimately wants as many sexy times as he does ( of course post -marriage...let's not get too crazy here ;) )

What I found on a deeper level is that the Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck shows how susceptible a messed up person can be when looking for a quick fix.  Her insta conversion pairs with her insta love and her beguiled look at Christianity leaves room for the author to show that nothing is perfect on either side of the stained glass.   Indeed, by the end of the novel, a smart twist gives the reader a peek into the Secret Life of Ben Delaney: with its own secrets and fallacies, the first time we truly see him is human and imperfect and not just the hot pastor with the pretty eyes.

And the motif of platform and visibility and congregational judgment is one that will resonate with anyone who has been in the public eye: either at the front of the pulpit or as a writer. The double standards, the insta judgment .... how we hurt each other intentionally or not -- all in the name of Christ.

Its treatise on passion comes with a price as lust and sparks don't give us a chance to ever see Ben and Sarah falling on any deep or complex level. For a reader who loves the gradual build and friction of chemistry borne of something stronger than just physical heat, I felt I was deprived a beautiful love story.   By the end, I still never saw connection between them beyond their passion and desire for a Von Trapp passel of children.   But as a reader and lover of the inspirational market, I must point out how deeply I enjoyed a contemporary-set romance that really worked in the thesis of physical love within the meted restrictions of the church's purity culture.   And while we can easily cite Deanne Gist and Julie Lessman in the historical sphere for pursuing the metrics of physical passion as far as they would go within the context of the inspirational trope,  I enjoy that Turner broadened these lines.

I had  the best strong reactions to this book:  on one level it took me back into my formative years as a pastor's kid learning all of the rules and regulations of the evangelical world -- -"that sex leads to drinking" (I was Pentecostal, yo!)  that romance is a stumbling block and sets unrealistic expectations ( it might be a stumbling block for you---each reader has their own journey and I don't believe in one prescriptive for all believers in many of these ( get it?) hot (snicker) topics). And I had a strong reaction to Piper who reminded me so much of the girl we ALL tried to be --doling out scriptural advice as we tugged people into the fold.  Having a strong, visceral reaction ( she leaves the room) when someone we like is caught doing something we don't feel fits into our Christian world. Luckily for Sarah, she moves beyond the Piper and navigates Christianity on her own.   And one of the major draws to the church is a man-- Ben--- with all of the tingles and stolen looks.  This is real life and why wouldn't a woman whose heart has been broken by a man of the world not fall immediately for a man of the cloth? As mentioned earlier, Ben is a symbol for the road Sarah is trying to cross however imperfect it is on the other side.

To add, I love that she married two distinctive publishing spheres and how they clash.  For those in the Inspirational industry, a constant conversation is about blurring lines, crossing over, finding secular readers ---- this book made me step outside the world and traditions I know well and really think beyond the veil of my time in a stricter Evangelical setting.   What would my usual readers think? What might they perceive as judgmental? What am I feeling about connecting far more with the Sarah pre-conversion then nothing at all with the Sarah post-conversion?  Maybe that is the point of the book...this book with the fresh, surprising, one-of-a-kind voice, with a ton of awesome possum Thorn Birds references....

I loved thinking about this book. How irked I was by it.  How incensed I was by it. No...not it--- the world it reflects. How it forced me to take a step back and really revisit the world I tried to leave. For while I remain a Christian, I happily sneak into the back of an Anglican church and am nowhere near a service that sings bottomless Chris Tomlin songs. Where I recognize that I cannot be responsible for being a man's stumbling block, where a healthy curiousity about sex and intimacy should not force a woman to cringe and blush until she blends into her pew. 

And it left me confused and riled and surged--- surged as a writer with the appreciation of voice and structure.  This story may not be my jam but the author IS--- isn't that the best experience?   And for those of you looking for this type of romantic comedy, you will just hit A + after A + across the board, because Turner has an inimitable voice.  Turner has a brilliant sense of humour and a knack at peeling back the layers of the world and peering at the vulnerable places therein in a poignant shroud of grace and talent. Turner does backstory and perspective and deep POV like a pro.  Turner should be used as an example of how to write first person that wraps around the reader and holds them close.  She is an expert. She is one of the strongest debut voices I have ever encountered and the strongest most original voice I have seen in the CBA (inspirational publishing world) in years.

And whether intentional or not, Secret Life exposes the fallacies, the contradictions, the parts of the inspirational world and culture we are still trying to patch up and sew.....

Maybe the confusion and the inability to find answers allows us to find ourselves in the mess with two imperfect people meeting in an imperfect world stretching for perfect---the church--what should be a hospital but is seen as a cloistered and often judgmental space. 

And maybe the confusion is in the funny.  There is nothing more Christian-y than a church wedding with a basement reception where Song of Solomon is quoted. Circle of hell for me, the dream for so many--- neither of us is wrong --- like Sarah, we just have to carve out a place to belong.

1 comment:

Toni Shiloh said...

Great review. I loved all your thoughts. I'm definitely a A+ reader and loved the insta attraction. :) And I love how this book talks about the Christian culture and makes me think. I didn't grow up in the church so I don't have a lot of strong reactions and probably why I completely identified with Sarah.