Friday, May 09, 2008

The Perfect Mormon Romance: Eugene Woodbury's The Path of Dreams

I've never read a novel that more perfectly captures the Mormon view of the perfect love story than Eugene Woodbury's novel The Path of Dreams. I'm almost tempted to call it canonical in the mathematical sense. If the stars were to align for a pair of Mormons to make their love and marriage ideal in every way, the result would be exactly the tale you find here in this book.

The author would probably protest that Mormons aren't supposed to get married after less than a month of knowing one another (as the characters repeatedly protest when other Mormons hold them up as role models), but that's not quite true. By Mormon standards you're supposed to pay lip service to the principle of getting to know your spouse for a few months before marriage, but if your love is truly destiny, then it is above such petty, temporal rules. It will be clear that there is no other choice than marriage, hence no reason to postpone it. Then the girl's aunt will just happen to have the perfect dress waiting in a box, and the guy will happen to be living in an apartment where there's no problem for the girl to move in right away, then the girl's old missionary companion will show up needing a place to live immediately so she can take over the girl's current apartment contract, then the girl's grandpa will happen to be a General Authority living nearby who can perform the service on short notice, etc., etc., right up to the perfect ending (which I'll discuss below after the spoiler bar).

One uniquely Mormon ideal portrayed in this book is the idea of marrying someone from the culture where you served your mission. An LDS mission to a foreign country is typically a two-way cultural exchange. The theory is to learn the language in order to preach the gospel, but this leads to learning the culture, and -- especially for young people -- loving the culture and internalizing it. In Path of Dreams, Connor McKenzie meets a woman (Elaine) who not only served a mission in the same country where he served (Japan) but is also half-Japanese herself, with all of the Japanese family and cultural heritage that implies.

Woodbury does a very good job of presenting bi-culturalism in a natural way. His novel is full of Japanese words and Japanese cultural references, but these elements arise at points where they're relevant in the story. Even for someone like me who knows little about Japan, the Japanese details weren't overwhelming or confusing. Instead I felt like I learned a bit about Japanese culture, and especially how it contrasts with Mormon BYU culture.

The most unusual aspect of this novel is the fact that it has no conflict. The couple has to deal with the standard getting-to-know you phase as they merge their lives, plus they have to tell their respective families about their marriage. Connor has a bit of commitment-phobia, or at least he toys with the idea briefly before deciding to just go ahead and propose right away. Of course the reader doesn't get the impression that he's even remotely commitment-phobic -- he's obviously an introverted homebody who would like nothing more than to have a loving relationship with his soul-mate. (Otherwise he wouldn't be writing this novel, see my edit your life post. ;^) ) The few obstacles they encounter are swept away like bits of dandelion fluff against powerful whirlwind of their passion.

Conventional wisdom would say that the lack of conflict is a weakness in the story, but it actually provides an original burst of realism compared a lot of romantic comedies which rely on some of the most absurd situations in order to keep the lovers apart or to keep them (for a time) from realizing they're made for each other. The one point of the story that's clearly a flaw, however, is the development of the female characters.

Both of Elaine's former missionary companions are bland and uninteresting. Melanie is characterized by being exceptionally beautiful, and hence leading a charmed life at BYU, with no worries aside from minor jealousy over her roommate getting engaged first. While being beautiful certainly makes BYU life a lot easier, it doesn't simplify it down to nothing, and some of the things Melanie reports about her situation don't sound like what a beautiful woman's life is like so much as they sound like what it might look like to a guy. In the story, Melanie's beauty serves to place Elaine modestly in the shadow of her friend (even though Elaine herself is also very beautiful). This would be accomplished far more effectively by placing Elaine beside a companion with a fascinating personality rather than fascinating boobs.

Elaine herself has some similarly questionable aspects, especially her behavior the first few times she speaks to Connor. They'd both been (supernaturally) interacting with one another in dreams, and the first time they speak in person, Elaine confronts Connor -- out of the blue -- with a cryptic complaint about his behavior in dreamland, as though she assumed that it was obvious to both of them that they were both dreaming of one another and the dreams were connected. The author grants Connor a perfectly reasonable human reaction (he wonders what she means and what's going on), but Elaine's behavior makes no sense whatsoever. Even the corresponding scene from Saturday's Warrior makes more sense than this ("I've seen that smile somewhere before..."). The scene only makes sense once you realize that it is constructed entirely to frame Connor's reaction when he's first confronted with The Unfathomable Woman. Some aspects of Elaine's character are believable and well-developed (her headstrong decisiveness, inherited from her mother), some far less so (she's a "dragon lady" which apparently means she behaves unpredictably in the heat of passion).

The one piece of advice I'd give to young male writers is not to set out to write a woman. Instead, set out to write a person and then make that person female. The one recent example I can think of where a male writer wrote an intimate relationship effectively from a female perspective is Christopher Bigelow's Kindred Spirits, and in that case I think the key was (as he explained on his blog) that he was writing about his own feelings and just transposed them into a female framework. Guys, don't give female characters irrational behavior just because they're female -- make sure their behavior at least makes sense based on their own point of view. If this is hard, try thinking of an amusing male character and change the superficial trappings so it works as a female character, but keep the basic personality and outlook the same. Seriously, try it. In this story, since the two main characters are both so very earnest, I'm willing to believe that they're made for one another, but they'd be set off better if the two blah companions (and maybe also Connor's boring aunt) were replaced with characters who are more laid-back, light-hearted, and funny. (Interestingly, Woodbury seems more capable of granting personality to Japanese women than to American women...)

This brings me to the next big topic: intimacy. Woodbury does an impressive job of writing a story that is at once passionate and chaste. I'd even call it erotic even though it's tame enough for a faithful Mormon to be okay with giving it to a teenager. The treatment of sexuality is surprisingly positive for a story set in a culture where it's a grave sin for an engaged couple to even fantasize about having sex with one another. Under normal (LDS) circumstances, either the couple is tortured by desire during the weeks leading up to the wedding date (a problem) or they're not tortured by it, which is an even worse problem because it portends major bedroom problems for the marriage to come. Woodbury gets around this eternal conundrum by using the only two outs faithful Mormons are allowed: a ridiculously precipitous wedding and (leading up to it) involuntary erotic dreams. The wedding night is of course perfectly satisfying -- almost transcendental -- for both of them. With no awkwardness. On the first try. Not terribly likely for an ordinary couple, but in this story it's par for the course...

Now I'd like to talk about the treatment of apostates, but that involves discussing the ending, so if you're one of those people who doesn't like spoilers, please stop reading now.

As the story unfolds, the two lovers learn about each other partially through learning about their respective families and ancestors. In Elaine's case, Woodbridge is (somewhat) candid about dealing with the fact that Elaine's (white Mormon) grandfather would have had a racist reaction to her parents' interracial marriage, but overall her Mormon pedigree is impeccable: a BYU prof for an uncle, a Mission President for a dad, a General Authority for a grandpa. This affects her value and status in Mormon terms, especially compared to Connor's apostate ancestors. Connor's great-grandfather had been put out of business and ruined by a church-owned business, and he ended up leaving the church over it. In my own personal family lore there's an ancestor who left the church under similar circumstances, supposedly sparked by a dispute with his bishop over irrigation rights. This sort of problem is a natural consequence of mixing religion and economics (a church with for-profit companies), so I was disappointed by Connor's dismissive treatment of his great-grandfather's perspective. The reported "happy ending" was when the church forgave the great-grandpa and was kind enough to allow him to be re-baptized after his death.

As bad as that sounds, the story of Connor's grandfather is even more questionable. Grandpa McKenzie lived his entire life in Utah, surrounded by Mormonism, married to a Mormon, and refused to join the church for his entire life. Then he specifically stipulated in his will that temple work should not be performed for him after his death, much to the dismay of his Mormon family. But (and this is the surprise ending, sorry...) it turns out that there was a sealed portion of his will that was to be opened only after Connor was grown and married. The sealed portion indicated that, in fact, Grandpa McKenzie did want his temple work to be done -- by Connor and his wife.

Now, anyone outside of Mormonism reading this would be going "What the...? So he never converted to Mormonism all his life, but he put that in his will??? I don't get it..." But in the logic of the story it makes perfect sense. The Mormon temple wedding is ultimately about sealing together an (extended) eternal family. Woodbury was developing the Mormon theme of "the hearts of the children turn to the fathers" as Woodbury had Connor reconcile with his grandfather posthumously. And the reason this is the perfect ending was because it provided Connor and Elaine with a reason to have a second temple wedding for the whole family once they had time to make the plans to gather everyone up (since the original ceremony had to be dispensed with as quickly and simply as possible for *ahem* reasons). So the second wedding was as much a proxy/replacement for Connor and Elaine's own rushed wedding as it was a proxy for Connor's grandparents.

Overall, I'd say this story would be enjoyable for faithful Mormons interested in a sweet and totally Mormon fairy-tale romance. But I'd recommend the book even more strongly for cultural anthropologists hoping to understand Mormon culture, values, and mindset. If you get this story, you get a whole lot of what makes Mormons tick.


Paul Sunstone said...

Your review fascinated me. I can't recall anyone -- including Mormon friends -- providing me with more insight into how Mormons see these things. You've left me interested in learning more. Thanks, Chanson!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Paul!!!

This is one of the reasons I like Mormon literature -- you get all sorts of fascinating insights about Mormon culture! :D

Anonymous said...

Nice review. I suspect that if I'd read the book without knowing the background info you've provided, I would have concluded it was lame.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Chaplain!!!

That's kind of the reason I wanted to review this book. It gives a fascinating portrait of the Mormon ideal of romance, love, and marriage, but it might not be clear to outsiders without a little explanation.

Bored in Vernal said...

Thanks for the review, Chanson.

A YW leader just gave my girls a "Mormon romance" novel to read. (A Chosen Love by Keith and Ann Terry). We all read it and had a hysterical evening discussing it. It was written in 1979 and the prose seems over the top even for the '70's.

"In the quiet of the last evening, after Brother Marshall's inspiring remarks, all the young people who were so moved, had been invited to stand and bear testimony. Craig had been one of the first, his words clear and strong, witnessing that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Jan, too, had stood and with her sweet sincere voice had expressed her love for her Heavenly Father and her gratitude for all her blessings."

and this one:

"He had checked out her schedule and made it a point to be at the Institute as often as possible when he felt she might be there too. He had soon discovered that he was not the only fellow trying to match schedules with hers, which had only served to heighten his growing interest."

I know for a fact I was not using the word "fellows" in 1979!

Yeah, it's a lot easier reading these Mormon romance novels if you are looking at it from an anthropological viewpoint.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey BiV!!!

That's too funny!! In all seriousness, though, if I were you, I'd recommend to the same YW leader to have the girls read this book and compare them. The e-book is a free download -- just go to the website I linked to above.

The thing is that this new novel expresses a very modern Mormon viewpoint, so if the Young Women had just gotten done analyzing a Mormon romance from 1979, I think it would be a fun and enlightening discussion to read this book and talk about how attitudes have changed.

Here are some of the points in this work that stand out as different from a few decades ago:

1. It really is a plus that Elaine is an R.M., and she has the maturity and experience that comes with that. Contrast this with Jack Weyland's Sam, where a huge part of the conflict of the novel was the guy learning to accept and deal with his (R.M.) wife's professional competence.
2. He talks about racism within Mormonism, but in this story it's very clear that it's a part of our Mormon past that is shameful and that needs to be dealt with (and overcome) instead of just being swept under the rug.
3. It's also multi-cultural in terms of being accepting of other religious paths. The author is willing to see Buddhist and Shinto traditions incorporated into Mormon practice in a way that I never would have expected in Mormon writing a few decades ago.
4. The book is very direct and open about the fact that physical intimacy is a key part of a marriage (and a sweet and beautiful part) instead of being that shameful and uncomfortable thing that everybody knows about, but let's pretend it's not there.

There may be other points as well that I can't think of off the top of my head, but I'd be very curious to hear what real live Mormon girls think of this story, especially compared to older LDS romances.

JohnR said...

As a half-Japanese post-Mo writer (who also happened to serve in the same mission as Woodbury), I have really got to read this book! Thanks for alerting all of us to it!

Regarding men writing female characters: the people I connect to in my fiction as well as in real life are almost always women. I'm more likely to stereotype a male character and to write a complex female character (in fact, I won a short story contest with blind judging, and at the award presentation, they expressed surprise to learn that the author was a man).

Just musing out loud. I'm not sure why my writing swings that way, or if its exceptional, but it seems to work for me.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

I thought of you while reading this. Actually, I'd be really curious as to your take on this book, so I'll make the same suggestion to you as I did for BiV: go to his site and download the free PDF e-book. :D

Eugene said...

Thanks for the review! I can't point to anything I seriously disagree with, though I do comment at length about it here. JohnR might be interested as well in my fictionalized missionary memoir.

Stephen said...

That was an interesting review, also neat that there is a free e-book.

Funny, I met my wife in October, we were married in January. I don't encourage anyone to follow that example, though it worked very well for us.

Anonymous said...

I found the first third of the book brilliant and the last third rather tedious and forced. I really disliked the deus ex machine aspects--someone dies and makes my dreams come true!

Anonymous said...

Very good review, Chanson. Even I am intrigued by this novel.

I like how you addressed the problem of the female characters. And you reminded me of one of mormonism's (particularly The Why) odd little ironies: "Tits and ass" (modestly but attractively covered of course) have more currency in the mormon dating scene than in the "normal" world.

I am going to check out that e book. It might make me tear a little hair out, but I can put my anthro hat on. ;-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eugene!!!

As I've said elsewhere, I look forward to seeing more of your work!!! :D

Hey Stephen!!!

While such a hasty wedding isn't normally recommended, it clearly works much of the time. :D

Hey Jason!!!

True, it does seem a little questionable that Connors grandpa being dead was instrumental to his happy ending. Still, it's not as though he had the grandpa get hit by a bus just in time for the new wedding. He'd been long dead the whole time, and his participation from the beyond was an element of the story from the very beginning.

Hey Wry!!!

It's true, it's fun to read it for the anthropology alone. You should read it, then we can dissect it some more at our next meeting of the exmos of Switzerland!!! :D

Mormon Bachelor Pad said...

Sadly I don't read books much. I read blogs though, and your review, though it didn't inspire me to turn the pages of this book, has given me insight into the book that I am thankful for. Married in a month though - thats a dodgy thought.


C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mormon Bachelor Pad!!!

So you guys don't need any ideas on romance from a Mormon romance author?

muzzy said...

There is a great new historical romance ebook available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
The storyline of “Captive Heart” tells the fascinating story of the clandestine practices of the early Mormon Church. It is a fast paced and a uniquely different read; with spine-tingling suspense, and sizzling romance.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Muzzy!!!

It looks cool -- do you know how I can contact the author to request a review copy?