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