Many thanks to Raincoast Books for the opportunity to read and discuss these two fascinating books as part of the blog tour this week. Sam and Kathy have kicked things off this week – please see the links above if you missed their posts – and there is more to come from Amanda and Jessica for the rest of the week.
These are two very different books by two very different authors, but both have generated a LOT of conversation amongst my friends and I lately. I hope you’ll have the chance to read and enjoy them – be sure to add them to your summer TBR list! First up is Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu:
Rachel Walker is devoted to God. She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy.
But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves.
Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.
As I write this, the media is having a field day uncovering the allegations and details of the abuse scandal in the Duggar family, and my thoughts are with the individuals who were hurt in this situation, so I went into this book feeling … angry … towards secluded religious sects. Funnily enough, the author was originally inspired by the Duggar family situation, and the Quiverfull lifestyle when she started to write this book. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect going into this book. What I found was a sensitive and interesting portrayal of a young woman attempting to make some very difficult decisions.
Devoted is a surprise in so many ways. I connected with Rachel early on, empathising as she struggled to reconcile her beliefs with her growing need to express herself and to figure out who she really was as a person. It’s a struggle we all go through at some point in our lives, and when you throw in the added complication of deep-seated religious beliefs, the waters become even more muddied. It was interesting to watch her grow and to develop her personality, especially once she had fled her family and she was living with Lauren. I found Lauren to be more lost than Rachel; unlike Rachel, she had abandoned her faith completely, so her transition away from the religious life was more abrupt and less grounded. I saw in Lauren the behaviours of the student who goes to extremes in an attempt to find out where her personal barriers might be found.
Rachel’s adjustment to life outside of her enclosed community reads well; I liked how the small town nature kicked in and provided a support structure. Growing up in a small town myself, I could see locals extending a hand to someone who had left a local “cult” because I saw it happen. As long as you were willing to step out and explore the world, the community would be there to support you. It wasn’t easy, and I appreciate that Matthieu doesn’t gloss over the loneliness and anxiety in starting over without a support structure. Rachel’s emotional upheaval feels authentic, as does her determination to continue her education and to take those halting steps forward.
I liked that religion is not vilified in this novel; her family’s beliefs provide comfort and strength to many in difficult times, and Rachel herself remains committed to God, just not to the same extremes as her upbringing in the church. I think that you could have switched out the Quiverfull references for any fundamentalist religious organization and had the same impact – a testament to the talent of the author to speak to how individuals are affected by ‘unquestioned conformity’, and not about specifics lifestyles.
This is a very quiet book in many ways, and I hope that this doesn’t mean that it is passed by because I think it’s a wonderfully thoughtful book that deserves much attention. I think it’s a great story that gives us much to think about in terms of what constitutes belief, support and family/community, and how adaptable we are as individuals to change when the motivation is there.
Q: What would you consider to be your own personal moment of independence while growing up? How did that change your thinking or direction?
A; Wow! Great question. I don’t know that I can think of one specific moment. I was always a thinker and a questioner, even as a small child. My mom says my favourite question growing up was Why?
I can say that choosing to attend Northwestern University was a huge moment for me. I remember sitting in my family room with my parents in the spring of my senior year of high school. I was 17 Northwestern had been this huge reach school for me, and I was shocked I’d gotten in. I grew up in Virginia and all my friends were going to college there or on the East Coast. I remember being terrified about going to Chicago for college and thinking it could be a huge mistake, but at the same time, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try.
I remember saying to my parents, “I need to try. If I don’t like it, I can come back.” I felt like I was really for the very first time taking my destiny into my own hands. The happy ending is I loved Northwestern and my college experience really helped shape who I am today. Making that choice as a teenager helped me realize that I needed to take chances sometimes, even when it felt a little scary.
Thank you to Jennifer for taking the time to answer my question, and to Raincoast Books for the chance to read this absorbing and thoughtful book. I hope you’ll pick it up to check it out for yourself. Next up is Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn
From the Morris-Award winning author of Charm & Strange, comes a twisted and haunting tale about three teens uncovering dark secrets and even darker truths about themselves. When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.
Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.
Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past. But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.
I was told by many friends that Stephanie’s books were incredibly absorbing to read, and incredibly difficult to review – they weren’t wrong. Delicate Monsters is a fascinating and compelling read about three teens who slowly reveal who they really are (to a point) over the course of the book, and I’m still thinking about all of it.
In the beginning, I disliked Sadie intensely. I felt that she was almost a sociopath, and that her destructive behaviour could only result in more horror. However, over the course of the book, I actually came to admire her – not because her actions improved, or because her character changed, but rather because she was so clearly honest with herself about who she was.
In contrast Emerson and Miles appear to be clearly drawn characters, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is much more beneath the surface. I don’t want to give too much away, except to say that the author’s portrayal of these characters was absolutely fascinating; nothing was as it appeared to be, and I found myself being equally fascinated and repelled by them.
Ultimately, this is a story of perception. Our memories are based upon what we perceive and what we believe, and by the messages we receive from others. I constantly questioned the respective pasts of these characters, finding out that the stories were not nearly so simple as I believed and changing my point of view based on input from other characters as the story went along. Credit must be given to the author for her ability to weave such a deceptively simple story with so many layers and contexts – it kept me guessing and revising my own opinions about everything right until the last pages.
I have to also mention some wonderful referencing to The Most Dangerous Game – if nothing else, readers of this book will be intrigued to check out this classic by Richard Connell:
“Sometimes I think evil is a tangible thing – with wave lengths, just as sound and light have.”
This isn’t an easy book to read; there are some horrible actions perpetuated by some very disturbed individuals, but what keeps you reading is the knowledge that there is something more behind their actions. I loved how the characters opened up to us, revealing who they truly were and some of the feelings behind their actions. There isn’t a clean-cut resolution to the book, so the reader is left to consider the threads that have been left behind, but it is one that will stay with you long after you close the covers.
Q: In shows, such as The Walking Dead and even Game of Thrones, the most interesting characters are those who have the darkest secrets. What is it about the darkness in others that speaks to us, and why are we continually drawn to them?
A: For me, I tend to correlate darkness with honesty. The tough sort of honesty. Feelings of selfishness and arrogance and cruelty and spite are all real human emotions, but they’re not ones we often like to admit in ourselves. At least not without some sort of rationalization. But when I was growing up, the books that could look into human darkness, in all its ugliness, were the ones that felt like they were telling me the truth.
Thanks to Stephanie for taking the time to answer my question, and to Raincoast Books for the opportunity to chat with her! Be sure to pick up her book to add to your TBR pile and set aside a solid afternoon to read it.