Friday, August 2, 2013

Deus Ex Machina

I decided to make another foray into the murky twilight world of Christian women's inspirational romance fiction when I noticed Mary Connealy's The Bossy Bridegroom on a display rack at the library.  Published by a Christian house called Heartsong in 2008, BB is the story of Jeanie and Michael Davidson, a Midwestern couple whose marriage fell apart a few years back.  Michael was emotionally abusive, Jeanie was a doormat; they got married because he was a controlling alpha male and she was cute, popular, and manipulable.  After she walked out on him, she was briefly homeless, but then found shelter and a vocation in a Christian shelter.  Having left their infant daughter with her sister Buffy, she eventually let Buffy adopt the child, but now she's living in the same small North Dakota town, juggling a few part-time jobs and volunteer gigs, and working through her new Christian identity.

The novel begins when Michael, who's also found God, knocks at her door, and begs her to join him in rebuilding their marriage, insisting that he's a changed man.  When she refuses, he goes to her pastor, who agrees with Michael that she should try, but also backs her up, warning Michael that if he tries to bully her he'll throw her out of her apartment himself.  So Jeanie decides to give him a chance, and the novel is the story of their rocky reconciliation.

The Bossy Bridegroom surprised me on several counts.  It's very critical of Michael's control-freak style, and presents a very realistic picture of how difficult it would be to rebuild a relationship from the ground up, as Jeanie and Michael do here.  Despite the novel's lip service to the supremacy of the husband in Christian marriage, it takes for granted that Jeanie can't be submissive in ways that Christian tradition has expected.  No Patient Griselda she!  Not only that, she seeks and gets the support of her equally Christian sister Buffy and another woman friend, Emily, who criticize her for failing to stand up to Michael; the novel complies with the Liz Wallace-Alison Bechdel Rule, which stresses female friendships and solidarity.  Instead of ordering Jeanie to return and submit to her domineering husband, her pastor and the men in her church and community back her in building and preserving her (Christian, of course!) personhood.  I don't think it will be a spoiler to add that the novel ends, not with happily-ever-after but with ongoing struggle and growth in the offing.  Not quite the Christian romance I expected.

The religion in the novel, as I've noticed in other samples of this genre, though surely sincere, feels rote and secondary.  Every so often Jeanie and Michael remember that they need to pray, that they've been neglecting their nightly joint devotions, and there will be a brief account of their practice.  Now and then when things get rough, Jeanie occasionally reaches for her New International Version Bible to go over her "courage" verses.  Fundamentalist / evangelical cultural critics often complain that even when popular culture makes some room for Christian characters and lifestyles, it isn't explicit enough about the importance of Jesus and Christian practice; I'm intrigued to see how little prayer and worship is enough to satisfy a publisher whose aim is evidently to correct the imbalance.  At one point in The Bossy Bridegroom, Jeanie remarks resentfully that Michael's ability to induce the townspeople into volunteering time and resources for his business projects (which he casts as purely for the good of the community, of course) resembles the tale Stone Soup, a story trope I often notice myself.  In this case, it fits with this book and with Christian fiction generally: the characters do all the work but give the credit to the Lord.

So I didn't find the story's religiosity particularly intrusive.  I don't know that I'd recommend The Bossy Bridegroom to anyone, though, or to whom I'd recommend it if I did.  It does indicate that radical feminism has influenced all but the most reactionary lay Christian women, even if they would deny that that influence, and so it might interest other people like me, who're interested in the state of gender politics in America today.  It counts against both Christians' and secularists' claim that religion is utterly rigid and unmoving: this is not the kind of Christian fiction for women that would have been published a generation or two back.  I think it supports my view that religion is not some external, autonomous force controlling people, but a social construction that people change to suit their needs and wishes, even or especially if they don't realize they're doing so.  And though it's thinner as fiction than other books in the genre I've tried, it's not at all a bad read; I'm tempted to check out another of Connealy's books: Clueless Cowboy sounds promising ...