Saturday, March 27, 2010

Heart of Stone Review

***I'm sure that regular readers of book review blogs have already run across reviews of Jill Marie Landis' Heart of Stone. I know that two of our Bettys have already done reviews for their blogs (here and here though I purposefully didn't read the reviews before I wrote mine) and though I hesitated about doing a review here on The Uncrushable Jersey Dress (a fansite for a deceased Harlequin author has an admittedly niche readership) I thought that it would still be fun to do. I hope you forgive the non-Neels digression.

First let me say that though my antipathy for inspirational books is well-documented I liked this. Maybe not enough to convert me to the genre but enough to want to follow the series perhaps. It was an interesting and fast read when (because it was 'assigned reading') I was expecting it to be a bit of a chore to get through. My gratitude to the author knows no bounds.

The Plot (Werein I Disclose Spoilers Because That's How I Roll):
Chapter One: It's New Orleans in 1853 and Lovie Lane is eleven. She is living with her three sisters (books two, three and four in the series?) in the home of her drunken Irish uncle and aunt. Because Uncle Dearest can't be bothered to keep the girls for nothing he sells the oldest two to a brothel and the younger two go to an orphanage.
Chapter Two: And then it's 1874.
Let's stop right there. The author just performed the literary equivalent of skipping along the Grand Canyon and then hopping blithely across to the other side. The great gaping maw between chapters one and two is not entirely ignored throughout the book but only touched upon. Some might argue that it robs the book of some of it's impact to not detail the awfulness of the intervening years. Personally though, I was dreading what I was certain would be the Circus of Horrors to follow. Imagination was quite adequate to supply the particulars without turning it into The Color Purple or White Oleander (gag)--books that made me want to shower after reading.
So now Lovie Lane, 11 and New Orleans is Laura Foster, 32 and Glory, Texas. Our heroine is a respectable, wealthy widow and has a a sign hanging outside her boarding house--the nicest building in town: Women and Families Only. And that's the way she likes it.
Of course her life is a Potemkin Village--beautiful exterior with nothing behind it. Her organ was purchased to appear respectable, her side tables come complete with fake daguerreotypes of her nearest relations (psychological chaperons of her good name), her church attendance is for show.
Enter the preacher. Reverend Brand McCormick (the name is a bit alpha-male for me) has two unruly children, a spinster sister I never quite warm up to and a dead wife that nobody has anything but good to say about.
Some courtship follows even though Laura has made it clear for the last four years that she likes the celibate life. Brand is not above using his children to get dates--a detail I find utterly authentic as my brother and sister-in-laws have been using my kids to get dates for years now. Laura is surprisingly good with the little demons, proving that breaking up bar fights, acting as your own bouncer and packing heat in the event that someone begs you to practice your Second Amendment rights on them is adequate training for the rearing of obnoxious children.
Though Laura would really rather not like him...Of course she does.
Having a former 'John' visit the boarding house puts the fear of discovery into her. Brand continues getting serious about her and then...
His quarter-Cherokee illegitimate long-lost son shows up in church! Bet you were not expecting that!
Instead of filling Brand's belly full of lead (what he intended) he ends up getting drunk and rescued by the merry widow Foster ('Hey! I think that's a parable!').
Tension follows about whether Brand will get to keep his position in the church or have to move.
Laura's past finally catches up with her in the shape of Collier Holloway. The scene reminds me of that line in Romancing the Stone--"But if there was one law of the West, b*****ds had brothers . . . ” Collier was her partner...
Her partner. Which is a bit different than compulsory prostitution.
If voluntary...erm...relations are Brighton, then I humbly submit that prostitution is crossing the Channel and living in Touville and being part-owner of a brothel is equivalent to chartering package tours of ladies to come live in Touville.
But Landis doesn't ever make Touville a bridge too far for redemption--which is really the point of an inspirational book in the first place.
Laura comes clean to best friend Amelia and to Brand (which name made me irritated throughout). But then Brand proposes anyway and Laura has to choose: Marry him and ruin what little reputation (remember the unexpected reminder of Brand's mis-spent youth is living in Laura's tack room) he has left (because no way is Collier going to keep quiet) or get the heck out of Dodge.
She ups and offs.
She gains her testimony of forgiveness and the gospel on her journey (symbolism!) and he finally tracks her down (with the help of his son) happily well away from the brothel business.
The faith of the town (read: Christian forgiveness) is put on trial when she returns to marry Brand.
But Happily Ever Afters are afoot and on the wedding day she hears word that her sister Megan has been found. What a handy excuse to write another book...

Laura's conversion is actually a very strong foundation to the story. In inspirational lit my beef about conversions is that they are too easy a Deus ex machina for authors. Got a bad guy? Conversion! Inter-faith woes? Conversion! Conflicting worldviews? Conversion! Imminent death? Conversion!
Inspirational lit needs to have that faith tension to work and too often, writers short-change the process or pretty it up in neat packages that don't really work for me. Landis seemed to have a good handle on that delicate balance between reality vs. inspiring story.
I think Landis explores the theme of faith from the perspective of the town quite well too. Laura's deception and subsequent conversion have caused them to have to look inward in some interesting ways.
Also, the relationship between Brand and his adult son was something that I kept wanting to read more of.

Landis totally avoids the question that I was asking myself from around page 20. Would a man--any man, not just a religious man--agree to move his family into The House that Touville Built? Personally speaking, I don't think I could live there and reach for so much as a drawer pull without thinking of it.
Mythical Job Self-Actualization. I understand that period historicals often come it two varieties:

  • Readable but often with a modern outlook

  • Unreadable and ponderously authentic

This book skews to the former but I have a pet peeve about everybody on the Texas frontier having jobs that fulfill them as highly evolved human beings. Amelia is a 'healer', Hank is an editor of the newspaper, Brand 'counsels' prostitutes, Charity teaches a choir with real choir robes...
I don't have an answer to this question (honestly, I don't) but wouldn't it be a good idea, when writing about a particular time to understand the feelings of those living in that time? I don't know, but it seems like mostly these books are essentially modern and enlightened with a powder puff of historical essence sprinkled on them. But then, I'd be annoyed if they were too accurate and didn't allow for interesting twists on predictable there you go. Think on it for a bit.
I also thought the support and proofs for the love story were shaky. Chapter Two begins and Brand is interested in Laura but they've been living in the same town for a while and I'd like to know why he's into her all of the sudden. Yes, she helped out a child while he was around but it still feels like small beer for the abrupt transition.

Still, I mostly liked it and would like to see her develop things in the subsequent books.

The Part Wherein I Become Tedious On the Subject of Doctrine:
"Buy hey, Betty Keira, aren't you as a Mormon possibly unqualified to comment on the subject of Mainstream Christian literature?" To that I offer a few discussion points:

  • I have the Hallmark Channel (she responds tongue-in-cheek). But seriously, there's sort of a default religiosity in the U.S. that is easy to pick up be you Hindu, atheist or whatnot (I'm with the whatnots). It's the kind that you see when the President gives an address at the National Cathedral or soap opera characters get married--an unspecific brand of inoffensive monotheism.

  • Doctrinally most inspirational books don't have time to explore the nuances of faith that might give rise of disagreements of doctrine. The Biggies (faith in Christ, forgiveness, atonement, Christian virtues (kindness, charity, etc.)) are entirely shared among all Christian denominations. And if Catholics are like Olivias and Protestants are like Aramintas (or vice versa) then other Christians sects are Outliers. Short plump red-heads but still recognizable as Neels heroines.

  • I read some Grace Livingston Hill (whose aunt occasionally featured stories of LDS bad-guys!). Essie Summers (whom I a.d.o.r.e. ) certainly shares her Presbyterianism with her readers. Catherine Marshall is also in there. My point is that it isn't religious fiction that bothers me or doctrinal differences (which I really only notice during death scenes) or nuances of expressions or church hierarchy (though these can be noticeably unlike my own) so much as second-rate writing. Women of faith deserve better than to have an okay love story cobbled together (like a creaky mid-Victorian hospital) with a conversion story and sold to them primarily as a refuge because they're 'clean'. There is a vast catalog of Mormon lit that is nearly indistinguishable from Inspirational lit. There aren't church councils and the choir doesn't wear robes and nobody ever invites anyone over for coffee--so even without atmospherics of mainstream Protestantism distracting (not annoying--distracting) me I still don't find most of it really awesome.
Okay, that was tedious. Are we recovered? Does anyone need a digestive?


  1. Ah, religion. I see it this way: There's religion (which is where your labels, doctrine, tenets, beliefs, practices, and so forth come from), faith (which can occur outside organized religion), and behavior.

    Betty Neels's characters are all clearly Church of England, which is the predominant religion of that nation and therefore a tad invisible, like wearing a dress that precisely matches the wallpaper. We know her characters are theists, but apart from attending church, there is no dogma or doctrine in any of her books. In my limited experience, that's pretty consistent with CofE -- it's so established that it doesn't require or ask much demonstration/protestation from its adherents.

    My feeling about romances, as in actual life, is that I only judge people on what they do and who they are, not what they believe. I'm as impatient with devout Christians who use scripture to justify remarkably un-Christian behavior as I am with hedonists who think they can trample over others just because it feels "right." (Don't get me started on mega-churches preaching that "Greed is Good" when Jesus had some pretty pithy things to say about the relative merits of wealth and poverty.)

    And in fiction, where writers are exhorted to "show, don't tell," it just makes sense to me to skip the middle man. If a character behaves in a moral and decent fashion, do we need to know which religion he or she believes in and thus which instructions he or she is following? I think not; I think we can see the good behavior and judge the character directly without knowing more.

    (Also, I'm nervous of the litmus tests of faith, as though knowing which denomination someone belongs to is sufficient to tell us if that person is "good.")

    I read romances to see people struggle with (and benefit from) two relationships: theirs with the (soon-to-be) beloved, and the struggle within themselves. I don't read romances to learn about a character's relationship with an organized religion, or even a higher power. That's just how I roll.

    But I can see how those stories might be fun for people to read.

  2. Um, I just saw a tweet about how Ellora's Cave (a publisher that might as well have its offices in Brighton, if you see what I mean) is going to offer erotic inspirational romances. Um? They pray a lot at a Brighton church? They praise the deity of their choice at certain key points in their exploration of Brighton?

    Call me crazy, but "erotic" "inspirational" and "romance" are three elements that might be okay on their own (for thems as likes `em), but don't really go together.

  3. It sounds like the beginning of a bad "erotic", an inspirational' and a "romance" walk into a bar....

    Erotic and inspirational are two words you just don't want to see together. Ever. I shudder a little at the thought of their target audience.

  4. Oh, I can guess (and I risk offending a lot of people when I say this) -- it's part of a larger effort to make women's uh, appreciation for the finer points of Brighton more mainstream. I think it's hooey. Authors write what they want to write (or they should) and readers read what they want to read. But I'm sure some hot shot at Ellora's Cave said, Hey, there's an untapped market among readers who both love to go to Brighton and love to go to church!

    And maybe there is, but those readers can probably get all their reading preferences better met by three separate books, each of which does its thing very well, than by one book that's trying to do it all.

    Just my opinion. (And I'm weird because I think "erotic romance" is an oxymoron. Write about the trips to Brighton and throw in a token romance, or write about the romance and have the couple go to Brighton for the fresh sea air, but don't think you can write about people falling in love during their trips to Brighton. There's just something about Brighton that stops the brain from thinking, "Ah love...")

  5. Oh, my bad: I have read more and it's not "religious" inspys that Ellora's Cave wants to do; it's books where the Brighton trips only happen after marriage. Well, okay then...

  6. Oh come on. You gave me such scope for the imagination!

  7. I know, right? Someone tweeted that religion & the more Brighton-ed romances don't mix: it's like having a parent in the bedroom.

  8. Hold on, hold on, one of the best "religion" with a capital "B" for Brighton books out there is "To Love and To Cherish" by Patricia Gaffney. He's the village Anglican priest and she's the estranged wife/widow agnostic Viscountess down the street and religion makes a 3rd at every discussion they have. A well-done, rather memorable book I have always thought :)

  9. Now, Betty Janet, I have to take issue with you on suggesting that To Love and To Cherish is very Brightonish (I mean, sure, they go to Brighton but it's just one stop in a very thorough itinerary of wonderful English locales) and take even more issue with the idea that it's religious.

    Yes, the hero Christie is an Anglican priest, and yes he and Anne (the heroine) have some discussions about God and religion. But there's no suggestion that she converts or even that God is in any way integral to their relationship. Christie's faith and his character are definitely part of the book, as they should be, and I loved those parts. (I find people's faith very interesting, in much the same way I love to look at their wedding albums even if I don't want that sort of wedding myself.)

    So I would say that To Love and To Cherish is a romance with discussions of faith and some glancing scenes of Brighton. What it isn't is an inspirational book set in Brighton!

  10. Betty Magdalen,

    But but but and maybe we have to take this to a church and duke it out LOL, she has a "Christy saves someone from certain death" and Anne sees the light conversion, and the Brighton involves lovely frothy unmentionables, and one of the reasons she doesn't want to love him is that he is a priest. And she does sort of convert* (heck, she's all over the church in the next two books). Just saying ... and now back to real life :)

    * Christy laughs and laughs at her statement and she says that with her propensity for backsliding, she might need a lot of spiritual guidance. *ahem*

  11. "Propensity for backsliding". *snicker*

  12. Betty Janet -- Oh, she is not "all over the church" in To Have and To Hold (which is the one in which the hero kinda forces the heroine to go to Brighton -- v. controversial book in Romlandia) -- at most, Anne is in the vicarage and then more importantly at the magistrate's office. But as neither Rachel nor Sebastian goes to church (the church, in the form of Christy, has to come to them), we really don't get to see what Anne's doing.

    I don't read that scene where the miner is saved as a conversion scene. Anne was terrified, of course, that Christie might die in the mine, so when he emerges, she's definitely grateful and happy and much more inclined to believe in a merciful Creator. No one, least of all Christy, expects that to be the final word on the subject.

    Mostly what Gaffney does is explore Christy's faith and Anne's feelings about Christy's faith. Which, given his profession, are good conversations to have!

    So, do I believe at the end of To Love and To Cherish that Anne's still a non-believer. No, because I think she sees in Christy some sense of the divine. (For anyone who hasn't read it, you would too -- he's very fine!) But do I believe she's a Christian at that point? No. I think she's prepared and happy to be the vicar's wife, a job that doesn't precisely required the most explicit levels of faith. (I have a friend, an atheist, whose boyfriend was in divinity school. In the end what broke them up wasn't that he believed in God and she didn't, it was that she believed in growing up and he didn't.)