May and June will be super busy for me, so I’m going to try to post short but regular reading updates (i.e. less than my usual 1000 words, and not obsessed over for 2 days).

I had my reading for last weekend/this week all planned out, but it turned out I needed something emotionally lighter to intersperse with JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You. What I chose was nothing on my list or even on my TBR, but Siri Mitchell’s The Cubicle Next Door. I’m not sure exactly what in this post by jmcbooks inspired me to check it out, because usually the words “inspirational chick lit,” even followed by “in a loose sort of way,” would send me running. I suspect it was her statement that the heroine’s voice makes the book. 

I enjoyed The Cubicle Next Door. Heroine Jackie is a bit exaggerated, perhaps–abandoned the day of her birth, she’s never really attached herself to anyone but the grandmother who raised her. The book is her journey. Joe, the charming hero, doesn’t change; he’s the patient catalyst for her change. I appreciated that she didn’t change fundamentally, but became a version of herself who would take the risk of loving someone and experiencing new things. She’s a tomboyish geek who doesn’t blossom into a “real girl.” Joe finds her desirable as she is. And she works out her feelings partly by blogging.

The inspirational part is pretty light, but to my surprise (this is my first inspirational romance) I found it too light. It’s not that I wanted to be preached at, but Jackie wasn’t entirely believable as a Christian and Joe was less so. I did like and understand her environmentalism as faith-based: God made the world, and loved it enough to send his son to die for it, and so we should love and care for it too. Beyond that, I had problems.

Detour: Where I’m Coming From on Faith 

Because this explains why I can’t read inspies. I was raised as an Anglican (well, Episcopalian), and my dad went to seminary when I was in my early teens. Tradition is important to Anglicans. I can imagine leaving the church, and I’ve shopped around for Anglican churches, but I can’t imagine joining another Protestant church, particularly one that didn’t have a liturgical or eucharistic tradition. Worshipping with others, in a form–more or less–handed down for centuries, is meaningful to me. I get that this is not the case for others.

So anyway, Jackie considers herself a Christian, but she doesn’t seem to pray much and she hasn’t been to church for ten years. I don’t really believe you can be a Christian in isolation. From the very beginning, Jesus gathered a community around him. Jackie and Joe shop around for churches, and they mainly focus on the preaching. They end up at a Catholic church, because it’s friendly; it’s the only one that seems to have room for new people. Which, fine. But they don’t really participate in the service and they don’t receive communion. I don’t understand–like, mind-bogglingly don’t–why anyone would be drawn to the Catholic church if its liturgy and theology meant nothing to them. So . . . half-hearted Christian that I am, I seem to be too religious for inspirational romance. Or just the wrong kind of religious. Aside from Jackie’s environmentalism (and her virginity, which really has another explanation), her faith is largely passive. This is true of me too, but I don’t admire this about myself. I would have found the book more interesting if growing in faith, not just finding a church, had been part of Jackie’s journey. I didn’t really think it was.

I was surprised by how strong my feelings about this were. I enjoyed the romance, I liked Jackie as a character and the slow, thoughtful development of her journey. But the religious part failed for me in a totally unexpected way. I don’t want fiction to preach to me, but I’d love to see a more in-depth portrayal of a practicing Christian. What else is inspirational romance for? Just for no sex?

Up Next:

Here’s my recent library haul, to go with my Patricia Gaffney reading:

Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard (because of this–scroll to end; I’ve been waiting for my hold to come in)

Liza Palmer, Nowhere But Home (because Brie recommended a different Palmer book on Twitter, but I spotted this one at the library. And then it showed up in Clear Eyes, Full Shelves’ April recommended reads)

Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower (because Willaful recommended it to me and anyone who loves librarians and children’s lit)

What about you?

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11 Responses to Unexpected

  1. merriank says:

    The faith stuff in the story sounds like faith is a consumer good for the characters. Faith is never passive. I might be post-faith in my own life but church was all about the community & connection when I was involved. Not least the theological reading and talking most I know who are actively churched do.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, I wouldn’t quite say they treat it as a consumer good. I think we’re meant to understand that they’re seeking a community, but that part of the story is underplayed.

      I *would* say that many North Americans treat church that way–and many churches cater to it.

  2. Ros says:

    That sounds very different from the (few) inspirational romances I’ve tried, which have all presented a sort of simplistic Christian fatalism, in which the Christian characters act morally and are rewarded, while the non-Christians do not and are not, unless they are the hero, in which case they convert. I like the idea of a romance about people who just happen to be Christians, but it doesn’t sound like this book is it. Your description of their church involvement doesn’t ring true for me at all, especially with respect to the function that the Catholic church has in its members lives (I am not Catholic, but I went to a Catholic convent school and have lots of Catholic friends).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This was WAY better than fatalism! I’d say it really rejected that. Jackie wants God to make things easy for her, and realizes it doesn’t work that way.

      • Ros says:

        Well, that’s good.

        But thinking more about it, if what they’re seeking is community, I would have thought that going to a church which explicitly excludes them from its most important event (i.e. receiving mass) is a very odd thing to do. Plenty of churches where they could be more easily part of the community.

  3. “I don’t really believe you can be a Christian in isolation”

    It might not be common, and it certainly isn’t this heroine’s lifestyle, but there’s a long tradition of Christians being hermits, despite the fact that “the Church has always been anxious to form the hermits into communities” (New Catholic Encyclopedia).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Good point. There’s a way in which Jackie is rather like a hermit, too, deliberately isolating herself from emotional ties to others. But she doesn’t do that to get closer to God. Maybe a better way to put it is that I’m not sure you can be a Christian without active practice of faith. Jackie does a lot of good works (her environmentalism, giving to charities–though all far away, nothing that directly connects her to people) but she doesn’t have a spiritual life, really. Even once they start going to church, there’s no talk of prayer, just preaching and the lack of a praise band. And serving coffee.

    • Kathryn says:

      Hermits within the Christian tradition need a community of believers to set themselves against and to leave — part of the power of the message of the hermit is that they are giving up various desirable social goods and bonds (e.g., wealth, marriage) and taking up a heroic, difficult life of deprivation that imitates or recalls Christ’s sacrifice. Many of these goods & bonds are not intrinsically evil nor are all members of the rejected community necessarily wicked — nor they should be, otherwise the heroic nature of the renunciation act would be much less impressive and shocking to those who hear of it. Think of St. Francis, the merchant’s son, who, legend has it, so dramatically and literally stripped himself bare before his bishop or St. Anthony who, after helping his sister become a dedicated virgin, left his Nile river community forever to wander through the harsh Egyptian desert.

      So I’m not sure it’s possible to become a Christian hermit, if you didn’t first belong and participate in Christian community.

  4. My mother was raised Catholic but left before being excommunicated when she married my (Hindu Indian) father. But she wanted me to choose freely, so in India we went to Catholic services on major holy days (of course we didn’t take communion). I still became a Hindu, but the Catholic mass wound up being pretty familiar to me.

    I can understand joining a congregation to find a social community, not just a spiritual one, and it can certainly speed the integration process into a new country/city/society. But I could never quite manage the less traditional, more tolerant denominations. They didn’t seem religious enough to me. I know they are, but as for you, it didn’t *feel* quite right. Hinduism and Catholicism are so all-encompassing, and even though Hinduism doesn’t require you to practice your faith, it has prescriptions for a lot of your daily behavior, so a more circumscribed religion seemed like cheating. I’m kind of a lapsed Hindu, but it’s still closer to what I am than any other religion could be, no matter how welcoming the members were. If that makes sense.

  5. jmcbks says:

    Your analysis about how the religion in TCND fails for you is very helpful in figuring out why/how this book feels only loosely inspirational to me. Which, to be honest, is a good thing for my reading tastes, as inspirational fiction usually makes me run far and fast. I’d be curious to hear your opinion of Mitchell’s other work; I’ve only read Moon Over Tokyo, which seemed more overtly concentrated on religion to me but still pretty light in comparison to the few other authors I’ve tried (Dee Henderson, Carla Kelly’s LDS books).

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