I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Samson a couple of years ago. She is one cool chick, and has even cooler kids. Her husband is, of course, quite cool as well. After taking the next step of any sensible relationship– rooting around her blog– I found that she is an award-winning novelist. Sweet! I threw a couple of her books into my Amazon shopping cart and waited for a break in my reading queue. I figured a little fiction would be a good balance to my usual reading list.
Well, I figured wrong. Or maybe I balanced wrong. Because I never did order any of her books. But a couple of weeks ago, she offered some free copies of her latest for anyone who wanted to blog about the book. “Free” is for me, so I wrote a grovelly email and watched for a package, more than a little embarrassed at my cheapness and lack of support for a friend who writes for a living.
But then, it came. And that’s when the trouble began. Because the cover, while not bearing any Harlequin imagery, is still a little, well, feminine. It’s the Women of Faith Novel of the Year, and the president of that group says it “speaks to the heart of women” (whatever that means). All of the blurbs are from women, too, and so I started to feel a little uncomfortable. (Heck, I’d be happy to write a testosterone-soaked recommendation of her future titles, provided the publisher hooks me up with a free copy!) I mean, I’m sure this is all driven by perfectly sensible demographics, but why should I be made to feel like I’m shopping on the wrong side of The Gap, just because I read a little fiction? I hid the cover and pretended I was reading about monster trucks or something.
When I started reading, things weren’t much much better, to be honest. I mean, could we order up a few more cliches? A girl who grows up poor and escapes her working-class life by marrying a rich, handsome cardiac surgeon. She lives in a huge house overlooking a lake. It’s got a pool, and the tennis court is on the way. Her teenage son is a social misfit but a good cook and a great artist. Heather– the protagonist– is seriously addicted to shopping and hurtles her giant Suburban all over the road. She’s up to her eyeballs in the PTA and doesn’t like sex. How stereotypical!
But then, I noticed that her husband does a kind of spiritual heart surgery on Heather, and that her son– Will– is the character who first puts her ideals into action. Hmm. And then, I noticed that I noticed this while sitting in my Acura in the parking lot of Whole Foods, reading while my daughter napped in her new high-end car seat. And I noted that I had, at that point, been battling at least seven days of almost obsessive desire to drive the 20 miles to IKEA to buy lingonberries. And I had to admit that I, too, have given away foods and household goods so that I could buy new ones for myself.
[What was that Flannery O'Connor said about to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures ? Oh.]
Now, I don’t know jack about fiction, so I may be impressed with something that’s commonplace, but Samson’s wonderful writing is showcased in this, a book told entirely in the first-person, and using quick dialog that works smoothly and without a scorecard. She doesn’t waste a word, painting arresting portraits in a single turn of phrase. Plus, she drops the name of the Psalters, which is pretty awesome.
Too, Samson’s characters don’t dwell in some moral wonderland, but in the real-world landscape of constant ambiguity and tension between the Godly and the earthy (and a real awareness that these things are sometimes the same). When Heather answers God’s tugs to Higher Things, she actually flakes out on her friends, ignoring them and badmouthing them in the process. Eventually, she comes to terms with this hypocrisy: she doesn’t brush off these commitments in a holy huff, but takes responsibility for her lapses, never claiming any higher ground. And when she begins to make new choices in her life, she pays the price with real and genuine pain and sacrifice. No happy endings here. In fact, the best passages sound like they were lifted from Samson’s now-quiet blog, Streets With Dwellings, where she writes honestly about giving up her life of cushion to find Jesus among the outcasts.
Reading this book was both enjoyable and withering. If I can claim my own cliche, it really made me take a hard look at my own life. Still, I think I’ve escaped Samson’s effective and compelling– albeit indirect– moral inventory without too much sacrifice. I’m just glad that Heather was addicted to tableware and not books, because I’d like to read more Samson (and I’d like to pay for it, too).