Here in France I have very limited access to books in English, so visiting my parents last Summer, my husband and I loaded up on all the books we could get our greedy little hands on from the local bookstores. Then in my parents' house itself, I was surrounded by a veritable library of books that are doubly rare for me: Mormon books.
Most of these books -- doctrinal stuff, inspirational stories from the lives of the prophets, etc. -- didn't tempt me in the slightest. Yet, for some perverse reason which I cannot fully explain, I was irresistibly drawn to the shelf full of teen romances and other light humor novels.
My mom must have bought these books herself, so it's not clear why I didn't want to have to explain to her my fascination for them. Still, it was somehow easier to play the hide-it-under-a-pillow game or just read standing next to the bookshelf and quickly slip the book back into its place whenever I heard anyone coming.
The first secret indulgence on my list was of course Jack Weyland. For the moment I'd like to set Jack Weyland aside though since if I get started deconstructing everything I like and dislike about his work, I'll fill up my whole column before I know it, and I won't get around to anyone else.
For today, let's start with You're a rock, Sister Lewis, by Susan D. Smallwood, since that was my favorite of the non-Weyland Mormon novels in the batch I read. I give this one points for humor, realism, and story structure.
The theme to this book seems to be "being Mormon is a lot of work." The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking, "Boy, am I ever glad I left the church!" Like a lot of realistic Mormon stories, it's not totally clear whether it's supposed to be for Mormonism or against it.
So here's the run-down: Sister Lewis is a homemaker with five kids including two little boys at least as rowdy as mine -- which alone are about as much of a challenge as I can handle. She also has a brain-damaged daughter who requires constant specialized care from none other than Sister Lewis. Then her husband has a serious back problem that causes him to be bed-ridden and/or hospitalized for the entire book.
To be fair, most of this is not the fault of Mormonism (except the fact that her life is made infinitely more difficult and complex by the prophet's wise advice about having five hundred million kids). The fun part though is the local ward's reaction to her predicament, namely "Look how competent, resourceful, and responsible this lady is! She could really help us out by taking on the time-consuming additional responsibility of becoming Young Women's president!"
The thing that interested me the most while reading this book and the others -- and I think this was the draw of my secret romance with LDS teen romances -- was seeing the same familiar details and scenes from LDS culture, but each time from a slightly different perspective, based on the author's point-of-view. For example, in You're a Rock, Sister Lewis the villain is the smart-aleck girl who thinks all church youth activities are lame and stupid. In novels like my novel, Exmormon, that character would be the hero.
I thought it was pretty funny when the ward in the book was planning a cake decorating contest/auction, and Sister Lewis was thinking about how she could make a fabulous cake covered with beautiful frosting roses that would impress the smart-aleck girl and make her think homemaking is cool. Reading this, I was thinking "Ummm.... Earth to Mormon lady..."
Of course we never get to find out if her plan would have worked because Sister Lewis's little boys cut a wedge out of the cake before she gets to decorate it. Naughty little boys, dontcha love 'em? Then she makes her cake into a Pac-man cake.
The incongruous part was the fact that when her pack-man cake won "funniest," Sister Lewis was "mortified." This left me going "Wha...?"
You would think that if you have the presence of mind to do a save like that when your little boys mess stuff up, you would have a sense of humor about it. But I guess after X million hours of vacuuming up Cheerios you start taking this homemaking stuff waaaaaay too seriously.
The next book I picked up off my mom's bookshelf was Paradise Vue, by Kathryn H. Kidd. This book rubbed me the wrong way from page one. But it said the following on the back cover:
By page 50, you'll know that Kathryn H. Kidd's Paradise Vue is the funniest Mormon novel ever published. By the end, you may discover that it's also the best.
Plus it even had a foreword by Orson Scott Card. So I figured I might as well at least read it up to page 50 and see if it lived up to its hype.
My conclusion: This is the least sympathetic Mormon novel I have read. It is not the funniest -- indeed I did not find it funny at all. For humor, You're a Rock, Sister Lewis definitely has this one beat as does Around the Ward in 80 Days, reviewed below. (You're a Rock, Sister Lewis also has a foreword by Orson Scott Card by the way -- he gets around!)
In a nutshell, Paradise Vue is about a pair of ladies from Utah's leisure-class élite who get called to the Relief Society presidency. They are free-thinking eccentrics that hate the conformity, rigidity, and insincerity of LDS culture. Normally this would have me on their side in an instant, if it weren't for the fact that they're better than everyone else. You know, more spiritual in the real, non-superficial way.
The author trots out all the usual ridiculous characters that we know and love from our array of Mormon comedies, but instead of poking gentle fun at them as the others do, she essentially describes how very put out the main characters are that they have to deal with these awful people. As a result, the comedy falls flat.
When it got to the point of ridiculing the mourners at a funeral, that was just a bit too over-the-top for me, and I was glad to see page 50 arrive so I could put the book down.
This novel tells me the following story: The author is a very bright, talented woman who has spent too much time choking on Mormon culture. The novel is a way of venting her hostility towards the shameful way LDS culture undervalues bright women, while carefully avoiding blaming the LDS church for any of it.
Now I know that it's a very dangerous time for me to pan someone's novel while armchair psychoanalyzing the author -- considering that I just released a novel myself -- people in glass houses and all that. All I can say it that I'm sorry but this is my real opinion. And if Kathryn H. Kidd or her fans respond by writing a really mean review of my novel, I probably deserve it.
Now, back to the books I liked. Next on the list is the comedy-action-adventure Around the ward in 80 days, by Joni Winn Hilton.
I've spent so much time in the on-line exmormon/apostate community -- surrounded by misfits like myself who chafed painfully against their rigid LDS roles -- that I forget that there are people who fit the LDS mold perfectly and thrive in that peculiar little subculture known as Mormonism.
Joni Hilton is a Mormon success story. She is a beauty pageant winner (Miss California), a TV star (talk show host and local news anchor), and a published author of books and articles in addition to being Relief Society President and a mother of four.
This book gives us another example of how the tone of the book matches the author's position in LDS society. Kathryn Kidd was that Mormon pariah: the bright woman with no kids. And as discussed above, she comes off as having a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Susan Smallwood's main character seems exhausted and painfully overworked yet proud of all she is able to accomplish. Sure enough, in real life the author is a mom with a million kids including a handicapped daughter. And as one might expect given Joni Hilton's bio, Around the Ward in 80 Days portrays Mormon society as rosy, light-hearted, and fun!
Joni Hilton (in the guise of her alter-ego/main character) paints herself as beautiful, sexy, laid-back, responsible, competent, and fun. I would suspect the portrait is reasonably accurate. She is also not afraid to be goofy and place herself as the butt of a vast array of gags. In fact, the text consists of a non-stop stream of gags. Almost without exaggeration every paragraph is the set up or payoff to a joke, so it can come off as a little bit frantic. More than anything else it reads like a collected series of daily comic strips, but it seems to work.
Note that this book has a lot more sexual innuendo than the Mormon lit average (it doesn't take much!), and it's nice to see an idealized LDS couple portrayed as not ashamed of having a healthy sex life.
The "Backword" claims that the characters and story will remind you of your own ward. I first started questioning this claim by the second paragraph:
It all started in May, when Nick -- my younger brother who's been full of surprises all his life -- gave us a triple shocker. The first was that his shady schemes and ridiculous stories were actually just a smokescreen to cover the fact that he was a top intelligence agent with the CIA. We thought we had him pegged as a second-rate con artist (Dial 1-800-Snake-Oil) when suddenly he showed up in a military helicopter at our son, Grayson's, baptism. As a general dropped him off, he gave Nick a letter of thanks from the President.
The whole novel is like that. Some of the minor characters may be wild exaggerations of standard Mormon types, others are like no one on this planet. The author kind of gives the impression that while Mormonism is fun, real live Mormons are maybe just a little bit too boring for a book. I can't give this book any points for realism or serious drama. To be fair, however, I don't think the author was shooting for these qualities. It succeeds at what it sets out to be: a pleasant, entertaining light caricature of a happy LDS family.
For fun, I picked up a non-fiction tips-for-teens book by this same author, and out of morbid curiosity I turned to the chapter about whether or not it's okay to experiment with drugs. The chapter opened with a reefer-madness caliber story about a girl who was pretty, popular, and perfect in every way -- who surprises everyone by dying of a drug overdose. The dangerous gateway drug that led her down the path of destruction? Iced tea!
Kids... Don't experiment with iced tea...
Like I said, I can't really give this author any points for realism.
There's so much more to say about Mormon light fiction, but I have to stop here because this is already about five times as long as my column is supposed to be. Sorry!
See you next week!
Published in the Utah Valley Monitor March 8, 2006.