Saturday, October 3, 2009

Don't judge a book by its cover

I joined some girlfriends in a book club several months ago. I've read a few of the books, but unfortunately have only been able to attend discussion for the one I hosted due to scheduling conflicts. The gal who selected our options for this month recently ran into a local author at the park. Apparently this author, Christina Berry, had attended one of the group's gatherings a couple of years ago as a guest, and offered to attend our book club gathering again to discuss her brand new debut novel if we were interested.

All of my friend's suggestions for this month's read were appealing, but the description of Ms. Berry's book (from definitely intrigued me:

Craig Littleton's decision to end his marriage would shock his wife, Denise . . . if she knew what he was up to. When an accident lands Craig in the ICU, with fuzzy memories of his own life and plans, Denise rushes to his side, ready to care for him.

They embark on a quest to help Craig remember who he is and, in the process, they discover dark secrets. An affair? An emptied bank account? A hidden identity? An illegitimate child?

But what will she do when she realizes he's not the man she thought he was? Is this trauma a blessing in disguise, a chance for a fresh start? Or will his secrets destroy the life they built together?

I love the mysterious concept, and the opportunity to have an author speak with us about her work provided an exciting prospect. I think most of the active participants in our group agreed, and I ordered my copy of The Familiar Stranger by Christina Berry.
Since I had a deadline to finish this one, I set aside the other novel I had started and dove in. The story captivated me right from the beginning, Chapter One being divided into a His and Hers narrative of the same scene from the husband and then the wife's perspective. The entire novel then follows this scheme of alternating point of view, but since the man suffers from amnesia after the accident, the truth is always just out of the reader's reach. The action proceeds swiftly, so I had a hard time closing the book that first night.

The next day, I arrived early to pick up my daughter from school and decided to sneak in a few pages on a nearby bench. One of my friends who is also in the book club noticed me and asked how I was liking the book so far. I answered honestly that I found the story rather absorbing.

Her response went something like this: "'s okay. I've only read a couple of chapters, but all the God stuff bugs me."

Huh? I sifted through my recollection of the seven or eight chapters I had read to look for any weird religious significance or hidden messages. I knew that the central characters were church-goin' folk, as the initial conflict arises from the husband's confession that he will be skipping church to go hiking in the Gorge (although we are privy to enough of his thoughts to know that is not his actual plan). I vaguely recalled italicized phrases meant to convey the female character's internal prayers to God, but I was sure those didn't start until later in the book. Based on previous hints and discussions with this particular friend, I think my notions of spirituality are quite similar to hers. But any religious implications encountered so far I had only attributed to situational relevance or character development.

Hesitantly, I explained my perspective, wondering if my acuity had failed amidst the gripping storyline. My friend announced that the novel was written by a Christian author, and felt that her intended audience was obvious.

I personally reflected on the Twilight series, a well-known collection of vampire romance fiction written by a Mormon. My husband (who read the entire series before I even started it--and I love that) sometimes tried to draw associations between Stephenie Meyer's plot choices and her religious affiliation. But I personally consider his accusations (for lack of a better word) to be a stretch. I found the Twilight series dark and sexy and gritty, and while yes, the author deliberately created a scenario in which the primary duo resisted their very apparent sexual urges until after marriage, I did not find her means to that end unnatural for the story or morally condemning.

So I think it is possible to read the words on the page with a bias strong enough to assume a hidden meaning. Looking back over the first two chapters, I don't see any prayers or overtly Christian messages. The family is getting ready for church, but again, I didn't think twice about that being any major influence in the story beyond setting the scene of the action. Nothing in any descriptions I read, or anywhere on the cover indicated that this book was written for Christian readers specifically.

After the conversation with my friend, these glimpses of spiritual significance appeared on the pages in what seemed to be increasing frequency. At first I was annoyed that I had talked with her about it, believing that if I hadn't been aware of the implied religious affiliation, I could have continued blissfully engrossed in the story without a second thought to any hidden messages. But the little italic prayers and allusions to churchly goodness began to gradually saturate the text. My assumption that a heightened awareness falsely generated that impression began to lack sustainment and I realized that I certainly would have figured it out on my own.

I can imagine reading along in this adulterous tale of betrayal, coming to this passage:

"Jesus is with me...all this time." Samantha wove the tissue through her fingers. "When Dad would have to leave...when he couldn't be with me...he'd pray and ask Jesus to hold my hand."

How could a teenager possess such great faith? I had my health, my husband was recovering his, we had a home and family and friends...and still I questioned whether the Lord was with me or not. Still, I felt alone. Still, I felt the need to misrepresent myself to Samantha, to lie, to manipulate the situation so I could feel in control of my fate.

Lord, give me faith like a child. Let me reach out and trust You to hold my hand.

And it goes ON like this. I would shut the book on my lap. Stare at the ceiling. And think to myself, "What the hell is this?" But I would keep reading because the plot was just thickening then. And because although I don't necessarily subscribe to precisely the same beliefs as these characters or this author, I choose to respect them as I hope they would me. All over the world there are different words for and images of "God" and "prayer" and "church." Sure, if I had known this book was a piece of Christian fiction, as freshly confirmed by other friends in the know, I might not have picked it up on my own. But it was a fun book to read in spite of a few eye-rolling moments of pious virtue.

I also want to add that Portland-area landmarks make heavy appearances in the novel, and it was really fun to read a story with authentic images of the Multnomah Falls bridge and I-5 traffic to form the backdrop of many scenes.

I will go to this book discussion, and might respectfully ask how she thinks secular readers would respond to the evident religious nature of the book, or if marketing to that segment of the population is even of any concern. But I promise to zip my lips about the rest.


Anonymous said...

I thought the discussion with Christina was SO great...and your questions were especially well-delivered. I'm so glad you read the book and shared your thoughts!

Christina Berry said...

Kristen, this came up on my Google alert just a few days ago ... but it was so neat to read your uncensored thoughts and recall the meeting. I totally understand where you are coming from and had a great time meeting with you all.

I wonder how my next book will come across? :)

Oh, and the research trip to the gorge was one of my favorite parts!


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