Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mormon Meat: Christopher Bigelow's Kindred Spirits

Eliza Spainhower, born and bred in Utah Valley, is Mormon to the core but refuses to see Mormonism as equivalent to mountain-sheltered culture. She's back from her mission in Taiwan and has fallen in love with living in Boston. Unfortunately, that means she's faced with the same problem that confronts a lot of single LDS women living in “the mission field” -- finding an eligible LDS guy when there aren't many around. So she meets a non-member guy instead and embarks on a whirlwind campaign to get him to commit to both her and the church. It's a wild race against the clock as she tries to get him past the baptism-and-wedding hurdles before their raging hormones get the better of them and drive them into bed.

This is a fantastically fun and funny book that gives an entertaining portrait of the Mormon mindset through richly developed and realistic characters. I have to warn potential readers though that the novel has a kind of raw realism that some may find disturbing. Basically you have to be okay with reading about some of the less-beautiful intimate details of the human body in order to read this book. The author uses these earthy details to contrast the pathetic messiness inherent in the physical body with the purity of spiritual feelings and experiences.

Bigelow's portrait of Mormonism has the same warts-and-all raw realism as his portrayal of his characters. He covers some less-comfortable points of church history, doctrine, and folk-doctrine without the modest whitewash. This is not a “milk before meat” kind of book. His treatment of polygamy is particularly nuanced. My book has a sub-plot that illustrates the complex relationship between modern Mormons and polygamy. But next to this book, my coverage of the subject is like “intro to Mormons and their conflicted feelings towards polygamy” whereas Bigelow's digs in like a graduate course.

I knew before picking up this book that the author is a believing Mormon. So I kind of expected that this more-realistic-than-flattering portrait of Mormonism would be just a starting point, and from there he would build to a strong LDS-faith-promoting crescendo. But he didn't. It turns out this novel is more faith-exploring than faith-promoting. For that reason (plus the profanity and explicit sexual content) many Mormons will not like this book. However I'm sure there are some Mormons out there with a strong constitution and an interest in church history who will like it. I liked it even though it didn't stroke my beliefs any more than it strokes the beliefs of the Mormons (the only exmormon/apostate character being a misbehaving ne'er-do-well).

One thing I really like about this novel is the realistic ambiguity and complexity of the situation presented. The author doesn't just spell out for you what you should think about the various characters and situations but rather leaves you to form your own opinions. As the story progresses, Eliza's relationship with her boyfriend and with the church takes some strange turns, and I couldn't keep from wondering how things would have turned out if she'd made different choices. What if she'd decided to stay in Utah Valley a least long enough to find a husband? What if she'd insisted on dating only Mormon guys instead of trying to convert one? What if she'd been stricter about keeping their dates gospel-centered? It's not clear whether such choices would have made things turn out better or worse, yet one can see that there are a lot of alternate possibilities. It's not even clear whether her experiences in the novel are positive or negative overall. And even though we see the character evolve, her situation is actually more ambiguous at the end of the story than at the beginning.

In short, this novel is definitely an entertaining read but not a fluffy featherweight. This is the book to choose if you're up for some Mormon meat.


Rebecca said...

I'm reading this right now! I'm not too far into it, but so far I'm enjoying it. Great review!

Matt said...

Looks like an interesting read.

Cyn Bagley said...

Interesting. :-)

Anonymous said...

Good Job!: )