Friday, August 31, 2007

A social Mormon in a decomposing relationship: JulieAnn Henneman's Ravings

It's a familiar situation in Mormondom: two teenagers fall in love, and as soon as he returns from his mission and she finishes high school they get married. Seventeen years and two kids later she's having an affair and he's masturbating to porn on the Internet. Communications have completely broken down. Is it over? Their relationship: yes. But the story's just beginning as the road to divorce isn't a smooth or simple one. It's a passionate storm of tragicomedy where laughs are interspersed with pain and humiliation as they discover how little there is left to salvage of the life they had built together.

This novel provides a fascinating portrait of what it's like to be a social Mormon in Utah. The protagonist as a teen had a difficult relationship with her mother, who was outspokenly non-Mormon. So when the popular girls and a dreamy football-player hunk teach her their gospel, joining the church is the obvious choice -- even if the hero is never entirely sure she believes. Fast-forward to the time of the story and both partners appear to be jack-Mormons with a comparable level of indifference towards daily practice of religion. But as the relationship disintegrates, they gravitate towards their respective poles, leaving him as elder's quorum president and her as a full-fledged apostate by the end of the story.

It's hard to find a story about Mormons where the church itself isn't the star of the show, but Always Listen to the Ravings of a Madwoman by JulieAnn Henneman is one of the rare examples. Like nearly all comic Mormon literature, the book is chock full of the uniquely Mormon details of daily life, yet these merely set the stage of the story. The church is neither the cause of the problems nor the solution -- it's hardly even an exacerbating factor.

Actually, Henneman's treatment of Mormonism is surprisingly even-handed. She portrays cheating and other misbehavior, yet in her story it is neither caused nor prevented by religion. (Normally that shouldn't be an unusual perspective, but in Mormon literature it is.) Of course there are the pushy Mormon in-laws trying to pressure the main character's kids into baptism, but they're a minor enough sideline that they don't come off significantly worse than the new-age friend explaining the magical properties of her various crystals or even than the protagonist's best friend who essentially encourages her to cheat on her husband. Then when the main character's visiting teachers are summoned to pick her up from a strip-club (where she's passed-out on the floor) -- and not only do they take her home but they show her friendship and compassion instead of judgment -- the scales start to look like they're actually tipped in the Mormons' favor.

My one criticism of this novel is "the right answer" factor. Fairly early in the story the main character decides that her husband is a sex addict (and that that's the cause of all of their marital problems), and she spends the rest of the story looking for evidence that will confirm her conclusion. That's a fine premise for a story since that can happen, but the problem is that the author takes this diagnosis as a foregone conclusion as well and seems to expect the reader to agree. Personally I was far from convinced, even after some the Freudian-style new evidence shows up in a scene near the end. And it's a shame because the relationship as it was set up in the story has a host of complex issues (such as the woman wanting to find her voice while in a sexist relationship, feelings of insecurity over physical/body changes, growing apart, lack of communication, lack of mutual understanding/empathy) in addition to the way the problems play themselves out in the bedroom. Yet once the character and author have decided that the problem is "his addiction," any further exploration of any other relationship issue becomes verboten.

Aside from that, it's an entertaining book with lots of raunchy humor and outrageous antics that surprise the reader at every turn!!! So congratulations JulieAnn on an impressive debut novel which bodes well for an exciting literary career!!!

Caution: lots of graphic sex.


Cyn Bagley said...

Sounds interesting.. "raunchy sex"

;-) Cyn

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book yet, but it sounds really good. And a nice review, too, chanson.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I read Ravings a couple weeks ago, and have been thinking of how to do a book review of it. Your review is exactly what I was trying to formulate in my mind without being able to think of the words. Your one criticism was the same one I brows creased when she first saw her husband looking at porn and she sneaked back to her room in shock that he was addicted. What?

But I also agree that it was a very entertaining book, one that kept me wanting to read from beginning to end. That's something that I really like about the book.

I found I wanted to hear more of the story of the friend who ended up in the mental institution due to her relationship with her condescending and emotionally abusive husband. This book somewhat reminded me of the women in The Women's Room by Marilyn French. Very good book describing the female situation or position in the 50s and 60s, which, if we look closely, seems to be the same way the Mormon church leaders at the top seem to think is the ideal.

I also recommend Ravings. A very entertaining read.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

Yes, exactly -- and plenty of it!!! ;^)

Thanks Wry!!!

Yep, you'd better get on the ball -- otherwise pretty soon you'll be the only one in all of Outer Blogness who hasn't read it... ;^)

Hey SML!!!

Exactly, I think that was a key scene. They haven't had sex in months, he refuses her advances and claims he has to work late in the computer room. Later she comes in to surprise him, and (whether he was also working that even or not) when she comes in, he's masturbating to porn. That's a huge red flag that there's a serious problem in the relationship, and one that needs to be discussed. But the evidence hardly seems to point to a conclusion of sex addiction. And her decision that that's the only possible conclusion seems to make the problem worse, as later when he's the one approaching her for intimacy -- both sexual and requests to talk about what's wrong -- she refuses, essentially because she's decided that their relationship isn't what needs work -- only "his addiction." I'm willing o believe that they had irreconcilable differences, but not that she made a good faith effort to explore any explanations other than sex addiction.

My complaint isn't a literary one though, just that if I'd been in the story, I would have given the main character different advice than she received from her fictional friends... ;^)

JulieAnn said...

Thank you so much for the review!

You rock!

It's always interesting to see other people's take on your work...thank you so much for te time and everything...!


C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JulieAnn!!! Glad you liked it!!! :D