Sometimes I have the strangest luck – this month, I applied my usual careful consideration to a range of titles to review*, only to end up with two books so eerily similar that my first draft of this review would have worked for either one.
Not good, not good at all. Especially when I consider that these books didn’t have much to recommend them in the first place.
To keep things simple, I’ll focus on Linda Goodnight’s In The Spirit Of..Christmas. Jesse, widowed and anti-Christmas, and his daughter Jade show up at Lindsey’s (Christmas tree) farm under false pretenses. While ostensibly job-hunting, Jesse is looking for evidence that the farm was stolen from him. He wants the farm back. Losing his wife meant losing his faith, and he sees a stable home on a nice farm as his only choice for happiness.
If you cannot guess Jesse’s reason for hating Christmas from the above paragraph, I am disappointed.
Lindsey is about as paint-by-numbers as a romance heroine can be. Dumped by her former fiancé, she retreats to the family farm to become a semi-recluse. This means she goes to church, is engaged in a public business, interacts with society, but has sworn off all men. This naturally means no kids for Lindsey – and she desperately wants to be a mother, as evidenced by her kid-friendly home, complete with a wardrobe designated for dress-up activities. I am not aparticularly fond of this clichéd motivation/thwarted goal combination – it’s weak and far too easily resolved. This book only proved my belief.
Both lead characters, and, frankly, all of the secondary characters, were pulled from the cliché box. It’s tempting to treat subordinate characters as window dressing, but that’s just bad fiction. Pointless people are unavoidable in real life; novels are too short for that sort of indulgence. Goodnight makes token attempts to distinguish her characters from their cookie cutters, but fails to give them even rudimentary goals or conflict. She ends up with stereotype after stereotype.
Romance authors often struggle with child characters. There is an inclination to make the kids either young adults or overly cutesy. Goodnight chose the latter. Jade is too good to be a real kid. Needless to say, if I pick up two books randomly, and they feature the exact same plot element featuring a cute little girl who will play the angel in her school play (requiring the heroine to whip up a perfect costume thanks to her handy mothering/seamstress skills)…well, that tells me not much effort went into character development.
With predictable characters comes predictable plot. Goodnight doesn’t build real suspense, real tension, real conflict. It can be argued than romance novels all end the same. But does that mean we have to be bored senseless in the process? Simple example: Jade has a justifiable fear of dogs. Lindsey has a beloved dog. Of course this chasm must be bridged – and anyone who doesn’t see resolution coming in the form of a timely dog rescue is clearly sleeping through the first ¾ of the book.
All conflict resolution is signaled with big, huge semaphores. There isn’t one problem that can’t be resolved with a quick, frank conversation. When Jesse tries to skip town at the end of the story, my first thought was that he makes for a lousy hero. Real men face the consequences of their actions. My second thought was that the author was trying to hit word count. Any and all possible suspense was lost long before this final black moment happened.
The backdrop for this dullness is a picture-perfect town tucked into a soft-focus world that I’ve been assured really exists (my source is not particularly trustworthy – she’s always messing with my mind). Maybe it’s that I read Peyton Place too young, but all communities have dark sides, and making the setting too perfect for words is Norman Rockwell without the edginess.
There is a contrary aspect of me that wishes to avoid the next section of this review – because I believe it should have been covered by plot or character analysis. The fact that it doesn’t is something I consider major story flaw. In a faith-based story, faith should be integral to the plot, not a crutch. This book slots into a romance sub-genre known an “inspirational”, and it failed on that point most egregiously.
The characters in this book practice a vague sort of Christianity. If you have a working familiarity of the Ten Commandments, you’re safe. If you’re looking to understand what drives these characters or informs Christianity, you’re out of luck. Rather than exploring the breadth and depth of Christian faith, all characters are “Christian” (except for the non-believers, but they are either bad-to-the-bone or to-be-converted-without-fuss). These characters inhabit a generic world where all is good and nobody questions anything.
The main street close to my house is lined with a half dozen Christian churches of different types – I presume the worshippers choose a particular flavor over another for a reason. This book is set in a town where beliefs fall into lockstep. Yet, it feels false. If one were to substitute Buddha or Buddhism for God or Christianity, the message would be the same, and I don’t see how the story would change in the slightest. In fact, if you were to eliminate the faith element entirely, the story wouldn’t suffer. While I don’t doubt the author’s belief system, I doubt the characters. I am told of their faith, but seeing it in the story, the emotion, the characters? It’s flat and unconvincing.
I am particularly troubled by this lack of nuance. This faith, such as it is, feels like empty platitudes. God loves me? Then show this in the story. Jesse’s conversion is predictable – he wasn’t really a lost soul anyway – leaving me, the reader, wholly uninspired and unchallenged.
I get the sense that challenging the reader is not the goal in this particular line – let us agree that this line intentionally preaches to the choir. As a casual reader, I felt a bit excluded from the club. As a non-Christian, I got a specific message: I cannot be a good person because I’m not right with the Lord. Setting aside my own lack of religious faith, the deliberate exclusion of other viewpoints means the sub-genre will almost always be relegated to a set group of readers. Since I believe fiction should invite dialogue, the book fails my basic test – I cannot recommend this book to the vast majority of people I know. The writing is weak and message is even weaker. Readers can only take so much of the same before they grow bored.
I am comfortably non-Christian, but I understand the depth and importance of true faith. My world is filled with individuals who practice a wide range of religious beliefs with varying degrees of success – I know people who truly struggle with life versus faith issues. Inspirational romance has been around long enough to have moved beyond cookie cutter faith; that this book is covering well-trod ground tells me that reading further examples is a waste of my time.
* – Also known as judging a book by its cover.