Book Club Discussion: To Love and to Cherish

SPOILERY, OBVIOUSLY. Nothing’s off limits. Although I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to read a book discussion here again. *wipes brow*

My church has a summer music festival going, with a different “theme” for each week’s service. This week, we sang music from The Sacred Harp, perhaps the first truly American music. Some of the hymns would be familiar to many American Protestants, but the style of singing is also quite strange to modern ears (here’s one we sang; there are lots of other examples on YouTube). There’s something almost aggressive in the massed, sometimes discordant close harmonies, often with a high, piercing descant. But it’s a beautiful strangeness, or a strange beauty.

I mention this because that’s sort of how I felt about Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish: it was both familiar and strange, beautiful and troubling. And, given the reader I am, I was really interested in its depiction of faith. I find it hard to write something coherent about the novel, so here are some points that struck me. And I didn’t take good enough notes, so they’re kind of general. I hope others will join in with their points of view and/or link their own posts (I’ve linked a few from readers I follow at the end).

  • I loved the depiction of community. Often in romance (in small-town contemporaries, for instance) I feel that the townspeople around the lovers are too cutesy, just there to meddle or for comic relief. The village of Wyckerley has far more texture than that. I’m not entirely sure I’d describe it as “realistic,” but it does evoke for me the villages of the nineteenth century fiction that is Gaffney’s avowed influence. I thought she got the literary atmosphere just right. Mrs. and Miss Weedie, for instance, reminded me of the women of Gaskell’s Cranford. (And perhaps a bit of Austen’s Bateses, so it’s appropriate that Miss Bates has a great list of other stories this reminded her of).
  • The community is not just a fully realized setting, but thematically important, because both Christy and Anne feel isolated and lonely at the start of the novel. Falling in love is part of the way that loneliness is cured, but so is becoming full members of the community.

  • For the most part, Christian faith and church life are portrayed in ways I found both familiar and believable. I spent some time at the start quibbling about whether the rather High Church Anglicanism depicted here was right for a mid-nineteenth century village parish (and whether it would have been driven by this churchwarden), but really, whatever. It was internally coherent, the importance of the church in village life and society was clear, there was attention to ritual and the seasons of the church, as well as the natural, year.
  • I really enjoyed the unabashed (and very Victorian) use of symbolism: naming your vicar hero “Christian” (though he was a tad too often described as angelic), the horse race between Christy and Geoffrey, Geoffrey’s resurrection on Easter, Christy coming out of the tomb/womb of the mine with his faith reborn. And the Victorian character naming–“Weedie,” “Thoroughgood,” “Fruit,” and so on. This novel was unafraid to be “literary.” I found much of the writing restrained and lovely, but it was also sometimes sentimental and the ending was certainly overly melodramatic, as if she didn’t know how to resolve it in the more naturalistic mode of the rest of the book.
  • I know some readers are disappointed by Anne’s conversion, and I understand that, but I found her conversion very believable (she isn’t really an atheist by conviction for one thing). It’s true that she starts praying because she wants something (Christie’s life), but she isn’t converted by getting it but by the feeling of being heard. Moreover, she is praying, outside that mine, among and for others–she asks for Christy back because the community needs him. I liked that her conversion was brought about in part by her attachment to community, not just her romantic attachment to Christy. Because of that, I believed it would last.
  • So, among all this praise, did you notice the thing I haven’t really talked about? Yeah, the romance. Christy and Anne were both well-drawn characters. I liked that they were friends first. And I could understand why they were drawn to each other, or at least why she was drawn to him. But it left me cold. I thought the emphasis on physical love as not sinful was interesting, but then Christy gives her up for Lent, and I’m not sure why, and I never knew what to make of that–did he still really think sex was sinful, did he worry about making Anne an idol? I didn’t think the novel fully grappled with the moral complications their relationship would pose for Christy. I can’t really put my finger on what was missing for me, though.
  • I just did not know what to make of the rape scene. To some extent, it felt like Anne being punished. The need for forgiveness could certainly have been gotten across without it. I appreciated Jackie’s post on this scene, but I’m not sure readers were being asked to sympathize with Geoffrey here. I think Anne was. And did. I can’t figure out what I think Gaffney was up to here,or why she went there.
  • I’m sure some people would describe Christy as a “beta hero.” I would not. He’s a leader of his community. Is he “alpha”? Depends on what you mean by that. To me, this book–among others–exposes the limitations of those terms. I’m going to quit them.

Other views, besides those linked in the discussion:

Janine and Angela’s joint review at Dear Author

jmc’s (from back in 2005)

The Desert Island Keeper review at AAR

Victoria Janssen’s post, which is way better than mine

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20 Responses to Book Club Discussion: To Love and to Cherish

  1. Kelly says:

    Yay! Now I don’t have to write a review either!

    – Loved the village atmosphere – it was *very* Cranford, insular, without being cloyingly sweet or OTT with vicious gossip. Gaffney treated all the villagers – good and bad – with respect, and never turned them in stock villains or do-gooders.

    – I only caught about half of the symbolism you mention, but I thought it was also really well done. It was consistent, accessible and non-intrusive, adding to the story rather than pushing readers into lit-fic allegory. I can’t imagine many other romance authors being able attempt that level of symbolism without clobbering readers over the head.

    – I thought a LOT about Anne’s “conversion,” and I can see how readers might feel betrayed or even manipulated. I felt Gaffney did a *great* job of showing how Anne slowly embraced the sense of community within the church. Without that gradual foundation of small, everyday examples of faith, I don’t think she ever would have felt compelled to pray, much less be open enough to “hear” an answer. And in keeping with her character, she shared her experience only with Christy – her moment wasn’t a lightning bolt, and it wasn’t a public spectacle (although the Methodist preacher probably would have approved of that).

    – I’m leaning toward the theory that Christy gave up Anne for Lent because he felt himself becoming obsessed with her and not able to do his job. I think it was much less about “dirty sex” than learning to balance the day-to-day pressures of his position with the idea of being a husband and eventually a father. And, possibly, the conflict of Anne’s self-proclaimed agnosticism. If it was guilt in either sense, I think he never would have gone beyond the first coupling (I hate that word).

    – Not sure about the rape scene either. My first impression was that Gaffney was trying (maybe a bit too hard) to convey the depth of difference between Christy and Geoffrey. The author could have gone with just (cringe) physical abuse, but the rape isn’t a one-time “look at how horrible he is” bit of sensationalism (we’ll save that discussion for the next book) – it becomes important to Christy and Anne’s relationship later when Geoffrey’s true illness is revealed (saw that coming). I think showing us Geoffrey’s underlying despair and fear makes him a much more compelling character than a stock Evil Villain. And I felt his suicide was his final act of redemption – he did it much more for Christy and Anne than for himself.

    – In addition to the theme of Community, I also thought a lot about Family, especially Christy’s veneration of his father. Anne was competing not only with Christy’s job, but also his repeated “what would my father do???” internal conundrum. Was that a weakness or a strength for Christy?

    – As far as the romance as a whole, I think this book suffered from the same pacing problems as the other two books in the series – once the Big Moment happened, the story got bogged down with all the internal angstifying.

    That’s all for now – I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as I hit the “post” button 🙂

  2. victoriajanssen says:

    I thought the Lent thing had to do with Christy’s constant fear that he wasn’t good/strong enough to be a vicar (or as good as his father) – he feared his constant sexual attraction to Anne was a weakness that would take over everything, in particular his duty as the vicar. He mentions at one point, I think, how he can’t seem to stop thinking of Anne in a sexual way. I don’t recall him blaming Anne at all for his obsession, though instead he blames his own weakness.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that’s probably right, and what I meant by “making an idol of her.” He does need to balance his love for her with his other loves (and when his love for her has to be secret, it easily becomes obsessive–having to hide something that isn’t really wrong is an interesting dilemma). I thought the flip side of this was Christy learning, from Anne and others, that he didn’t have to be a perfect saint to be a good man and a good pastor to his flock.

      • victoriajanssen says:

        Yeah, I think she was a big part of him learning he was a person and not an idol – that’s a good word for it! He does a similar thing for her, from Geoffrey’s Wife to person.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, the way that they help each other be fully (and merely) human is one of the loveliest parts of the book, and a way that they are friends as much as lovers. That did make me believe in their HEA.

      • SonomaLass says:

        Isn’t Lenten abstinence meant to be giving up something pleasurable as a reminder of the sacrifice of Good Friday? A way to focus on that aspect of the Lenten season? In my family we always gave up dessert for Lent, and then sent the money we saved to a charity. We weren’t taught that sweets were wrong, or even bad for us in moderation, and there wasn’t any suggestion that we should deprive ourselves longer than 40 days. It was a gesture of commitment to the practice of the church and an aid to contemplation of the meaning of Easter. So while I think giving up sexual pleasure should be a mutual decision rather than a unilateral one, I don’t think Christy needs to be thinking that it’s wrong in order to make it his Lenten sacrifice.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, that’s a good point. There are a lot of different ways to see the “fasting” part of Lent (self-examination, fasting and prayer are the Lenten disciplines, at least in my church). Some are caught up in the “sinfulness” of the body/worldly pleasures, and some are not.

          I think my only issue with the way it appears in the book, really, is that (if I remember correctly) we hear about from Anne, who doesn’t really understand it. I wanted to know why Christy thought he was doing it.

  3. Miss Bates says:

    I would like to echo Kelly in saying “whew,” Miss Bates was so overwhelmed by everything she could say about TO LOVE AND CHERISH that she found the idea of a “post” too intimidating. She also thought she’d get so much wrong. But, thank you, LMc! Or in keeping with Gaffney’s novel’s spirit here: bless you!! For articulating so much of what Miss Bates sensed but couldn’t write and for giving us this opportunity to ramble.

    There is nothing like a two-hour Sunday Liturgy to give Miss Bates’s time to think about many things, including the theological thread of Gaffney’s novel. (BTW, loved the music your church sang and watched the video several times over. Miss Bates worships in a combo of mainly English, smatterings of French, Russian, Greek chant, so if you think Sacred Harp sounds dissonant, some droning Byzantine chant might disavail you of that notion!) So, some things to add that your clear thinking made Miss Bates consider.

    One is that the notion of community is such a great point to make because it is essential to a concept of a good marriage, Christian or not. A good marriage is, in keeping with the spirit of the novel, “Trinitarian,” three/many, not two (not in poor Lady Di’s sense of her “crowded” marriage) but in the sense that it must go beyond two: yes, to a family of three or four, etc. but also to include the community, the “other,” or “others.” Anne and Christy, by the HEA, do come to that point: theirs will be a home that includes their community. As for Anne’s conversion, I think it is also part of the “falling in love” theme. Anne falls in love with Christy, then Wyckerley, and lastly, with God. She has to make her way there initially in human terms.

    I agree with what you said about the “rape scene.” I also think it’s symbolic that before Geoffrey killed himself, he killed his horse, Devil, thereby, destroying the worst of himself and leaving Anne and Christy free. It was a twisted sacrifice, but one (actually “two,” poor beast) nevertheless. It’s interesting that Christy’s name for Devil is Tandem, which of course means “two things, or horses,” bringing this back to the idea of community. The tragedy of “Devil” and Geoffrey and why we have some sympathy for him, is because he is alone, having removed himself from connection, human and spiritual (also symbolized by his illness, one could argue). Whatever acts of betrayal Geoffrey enacted, like Judas, he redresses by his suicide.

    Lastly, I didn’t think there was any confusion about Christy’s Lenten deprivation, but I can understand why readers may be nonplussed by it. “Giving up” for Lent is less about “deprivation,” and more about giving oneself a retreat from worldly things. I never thought that Christy gave up Anne, though it certainly may have read that way; I thought he just created a retreat space, some time for contemplation, not only on “sins” and guilt, but on the joyful stuff, the stuff he was grateful for, like Anne, his sense of purpose in his ministry, etc. I would agree that Gaffney didn’t necessarily convey that, though.

    Lastly, the romance may have paled next to so much else that went on in this novel, but it made sense in the context of what was going on. Maybe its theme is less narcissistic than a romance novel that keeps the romance front and centre more consistently?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      So often we see romance protagonists largely in isolation, with secondary characters VERY secondary. No family and friends, or only brief references. I appreciated their presence here, and I didn’t think it detracted at all from the centrality of the romance; it was, as you say, woven into the themes of the novel–and falling in love with God THROUGH people is a great way to put it. I think that’s a common conversion experience. (I only know a couple of people I’d describe as “converts” in the way Anne is, and their experiences are somewhat similar).

    • victoriajanssen says:

      Miss Bates, I love your thoughts on Geoffrey!

  4. Okay, thoughts/responses:

    * I loved the depiction of community too. I haven’t read Cranford so to me it felt fresh and new.

    * Agree re. loneliness/community, and I loved that, especially in Anne’s case. i loved the way she felt cut off from the townspeople and then realized there were real friendships for her there, because haven’t we all had that experience as newcomers to a community? I know I have.

    * I don’t know that much about Christianity, but that aspect was convincing enough to me. I loved the attention to the change of seasons and to nature.

    * Re. Symbolism, I didn’t pick up all that you did, but wasn’t Geoffrey’s horse named Devil, or something like that, too? And I like the names. Not just Christian but Christian Morrell (for “Moral”?). And maybe because i love the dream sequence in THATH, I really enjoyed the one in this book, too. I felt there was symbolism in Anne’s dream lover’s shoes being gilded with pollen. And I think it’s such an interesting technique, with the dreams in both books, that the heroine doesn’t identify her lover, but the reader of course can guess who it is. Gaffney is getting across the idea that the heroine’s subconscious recognizes something her conscious mind does not.

    * With regard to Anne’s conversion, I felt more like you did in my last reading, but the first few times I read the book I was disappointed. Mainly because atheists are so underrepresented in this genre. it was a little like the overweight heroine who becomes slim by the novel’s end.

    *I always feel detached from Anne and Christy’s romance too, and I’m not sure why. I thought Christy continued to worry about premarital sex being a sin even after he was sleeping with Anne. Sleeping with her was a kind of sacrifice/compromise for him, a meeting her half way since she’d agreed to marry him. And when Anne feels punished by Geoffrey’s rape, I thought it was the sex with Christy that she felt she was being punished for.

    This may be historically appropriate as well as appropriate to the religious themes, but it bothered me. I know that at the end of the book, it was stated in Anne’s POV that God was forgiving, not punishing, but I would have liked to have seen them discuss it and even go back to making love because that would have convinced me that they really believed it. There was so much weight given to the “Is it a sin?” question that I wanted the question answered more strongly.

    * Regarding the rape. i really hated the way Anne blamed herself, although of course it’s accurate to what victims feel. I would have liked for there to be another character who could tell Anne that Geoffrey was responsible for his own actions and that this was in no way her fault. The other thing I hated, hated, hated was that Anne thought she had contracted Syphilis, because I as the reader shared that scare with her, and when I realized, as she did, that she was safe from that, I felt like a cheap trick had just been played with my emotions.

    * I’ll skip the alpha/beta question because like you, I think we give these categories more weight and power than they deserve.

    * i’ll add a question of my own — what did you think of Anne’s cynicism? To me it was one of the most interesting aspects of her.

    On the whole I think this novel is well worth reading. i know people who adore it and think it ranks high up there, but while I appreciate a lot about it, it’s not quite there for me in the same way that a couple of other Gaffney books are. If I had to say why, it has to do with my distance from Christy and Anne’s romance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really liked Anne’s cynicism (perhaps because I’m fairly cynical myself). It was certainly believable for someone with her life experience. And so often we see the cynical hero and the more emotionally open, loving heroine. I liked the way Gaffney was exploring the reversal of those character types. (On the other hand, I can see Sunita’s point that as a reader, she felt too aware of that as a kind of intellectual exercise–she saw the machinery).

      I was surprised when I read it by how much sex there was. And those scenes, in general, didn’t really work for me–maybe there were too many, and they didn’t always feel like they were revealing character/advancing plot (unlike in To Have and to Hold). They are part of what made me feel the novel was at times too sentimental/sweet/”nice” too, I think, but I’d have to go back and reread some to be able to put my finger on this.

      • Agree on the cynicism. Re. the intellectual exercise thing, any conflict in a book could be called that, so what I’d love to know is what was it that made the machinery more visible in the Wyckerley trilogy?

        Agree on the sex scenes. They felt somewhat superfluous to me in this novel, whereas in THATH each one felt like it served a purpose.

  5. Sunita says:

    I read this quite a few years ago now and as I’ve said in other comments, this is my favorite of the trilogy (and of the four Gaffneys I’ve read, Wild at Heart being the fourth). I loved the setting, and I hadn’t thought about it as being Cranford-like, but that’s a good comparison. It also reminds me of the various Barsetshire novels, not least because of the role of religion. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as the rest of you, but the way it is depicted matches what I’ve read of 19thC literature and my own experiences in a small English village in the 1980s and 1990s, in terms of the social and spiritual role of Christianity in village life.

    Janine, for me the machinery became apparent in the same way that certain recurring motifs of authors can become apparent when you read a number of books in a row. I read the trilogy back to back and then Wild at Heart relatively soon after that, I think. They felt like the intersection of a certain type of novel (the village novel as romance novel) with explorations of hero-heroine tropes and pushing the boundaries of those tropes. In THATH, she explores what it’s like to write a truly good hero, one who cares about being a good person, and sees if she can make him sexy and interesting, and she pairs him with a heroine who is his opposite (not in goodness but in idealism). I felt similar explorations (what we get in novels of ideas, but contained within the traditional romance form) in the other two. I’ve wondered if my preference for TLATC is because it was the first book and felt very fresh (and I love village novels, so there’s that).

  6. Janine, for me the machinery became apparent in the same way that certain recurring motifs of authors can become apparent when you read a number of books in a row.

    Ah, I do get that. It happens to me a lot when I read one author’s books back-to-back (which I don’t do that often, for that very reason).

    I figured you meant TLATC when you wrote THATH. i read THATH first and that is probably one factor in it being my favorite (though not the only factor, I don’t think). It was really hard for me to get into TLATC the first time I read it because it was my second Gaffney and I was fresh from being wowed by THATH. I anticipated a similar intensity but got something more low key, so it actually seemed pallid the first time I read it. I appreciate it more each time I revisit it, though.

  7. victoriajanssen says:

    So when are we doing FOREVER AND EVER? I have never even read a review of that one, so am totally unspoiled.

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