Pairing: prostitute and farmer
First Sentence: Alex Stafford was just like Mama said.
Climax: Michael knew and gently coaxed her with tender words flowing over her like the sweet balm of Gilead healing her wounds.
And she flew, Michael with her, into the heavens.
For my second last romnov, I wanted to stay true to my original mission, and read a twentieth century romance novel. There doesn't seem to be an equivalent to The List for romnovs, so I went to Goodreads, where I found Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, rated very highly and much-beloved.
Now, I don't move in circles where Redeeming Love is a popular title. It is, however, apparently a huge success among Christian romance readers, and we'll definitely get into that.The book is a retelling of the biblical Book of Hosea, or at least that's what it says it is. At around the halfway mark I finally was overcome with curiosity and picked up a bible for the first time in years to investigate this claim. I read the entire Book of Hosea, which is a prophetic book, and uses the metaphor of a man with an unfaithful wife to illustrate the relationship between God and the nation of Israel. The connection between that text and Redeeming Love is tenuous at best.
Here's what happens in Redeeming Love:
We meet Sarah as a child being introduced to her father Alex Stafford for the first time. It's 1835, somewhere in New England. Her mother is a kept side chick for Alex, who has a wife and family. Alex didn't want his mistress to keep the baby that she conceived with his assistance and wants nothing to do with Sarah. So, the next time Alex comes by, her mother sends Sarah away with their servant. This goes poorly. Soon, Alex grows tired of his mistress and cuts her off. She tries to go back to her parents who won't take her back because she's had a child out of wedlock and they're Catholic and this book doesn't like Catholics. Sarah's mother ends up turning to prostitution and then dying when Sarah is eight years old. After her mother's death, Sarah is sold to a powerful man named Duke who runs a brothel and likes little girls.
Fast forward to 1850, environs of San Francisco. Sarah now thinks of herself as Angel, and she's a prostitute in the California Gold Rush town of Pair-a-Dice (a name that I took several chapters to figure out). After running away from Duke successfully for the first time after many attempts, she's now working in a brothel for "the Duchess" where Angel is the most sought-after "soiled dove."
As an aside, I don't know if I've encountered the term "soiled dove" prior to reading this book but I don't care for it at all.
Anyway, Pair-a-Dice is where farmer Michael Hosea sees Angel for the first time. He's a homesteader, not a greedy prospector, in case you were wondering. God literally speaks to Michael, telling him that Angel will be his wife. God's words in the book are stylised in bold italics but it seems that the devil's words are as well, which I thought as a cute touch. (Also in case you were wondering if there are any non-white characters in this book, like Chinese people, indigenous people, black people, etc.—there's some lip service to their existence. One of the other prostitutes is named Mai Ling; she dies in a fire. Michael is in California because he refused to inherit from his slave-owning father, and a black man taught him his faith.)
Listening to God's voice, Michael spends a lot of gold dust to spend time with Angel and just talk. She's understandably a bit weirded out by this, as it's been a decade or so since she had any encounters with men that don't also involve her body. Michael repeatedly asks Angel to marry him and she repeatedly declines. Spooked, Angel decides to get the money that the Duchess has been collecting on her behalf and leave town.
Instead of getting her money from the Duchess when she asks for it, Angel angers the other woman, who sends in her bodyguard/enforcer to teach Angel a lesson. Thinking that death is now her only way out, Angel provokes him into beating her to death.
Michael arrives at the brothel just in time to save the day. He takes Angel away from the Duchess's place, but only after a hasty wedding. Angel has been beaten to within about an inch of her life, is barely coherent, and takes many weeks to recover. Michael nurses her the entire time, although the book doesn't get into some of the details of this like how he'd need to bather her and help her use the bathroom.
I should pause here to say that despite being a bible thumper, Michael is also a genuinely nice guy. He's a character I could really believe would treat everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of race, creed, class, etc.
Angel is, again understandably, wary of Michael and what he wants from her, and how long he's going to want it for before kicking her to the curb. He teachers her how to cook and keep house, and she works with him, thinking that at least she can pick up some skills in preparation for leaving him, getting her money from the Duchess and setting up a cabin on her own. Angel and Michael live together chastely for quite a while, with him teacher her how to be a farm wife and also showing his affection until finally one night they consummate the marriage. Angel is disturbed by how different his is from what she's used to, and her growing vulnerability to Michael, and runs away the following morning.
Michael finds her and brings her home, but not long after, his brother-in-law Paul returns home from panning for gold. Paul was married to Michael's sister Tessie, who died on their trip west. Paul recognizes Angel as a prostitute and distrusts her, thinking she's manipulating Michael. He has confrontations with both Michael and Angel and then when Angel decides to run away again, he drives her to town, insisting that she pay him for his trouble with sex.
In town, the Duchess's brothel has burned down and she's long gone. With nothing else to do, Angel begins plying her old trade in another bar. Michael catches her in the act and drags her home. Angel tells Michael that she was sold into prostitution as a child. The two of them gradually patch things up again, and take a trip to a different town to sell wares and buy new supplies.
On their way back to the farm, they meet the Altman family. The family spends the winter with Michael and Angel. Mr and Mrs Altman are a model relationship for Michael and Angel and Miriam Altman, their daughter, becomes Angel's friend. The Altmans accept Angel as Mrs Hosea, even though she reveals to them early on that she was a prostitute.
The Altmans homestead near the Hoseas and they have a lot of happy times. Angel and Michael grow closer and happier but we learn that Angel had forced abortions as a young girl that have left her unable to conceive (if you think that you know where this is going—you're right). Angel knows that Michael desperately wants children, so even though she can finally admit to herself that she loves him, she decides to leave him again so that he can get over her and take Miriam in her place. (I'm skipping over another run away and return incident but this summary is way too long already.)
Things get even more religious at this point, and there's quite a bit of stuff about how Angel has put Michael on a pedestal as her god but she needs an actual God instead. She works for a man in San Francisco as a cook, until his restaurant burns down. In the ashes, she once again encounters Duke, who has followed the money to the west coast.
Duke plans to put her to work again, but head of singing bawdy songs when he puts her on stage one night, she sings a hymn (I honestly don't know how he thought that scenario would turn out in his favour). Thanks to a benevolent audience member (a banker, of all things, truly the most Christian profession of all), Angel is able to escape from Duke with two young girls who have both been abused by him like Angel was.
Meanwhile back at the farm, Michael obviously hasn't directed his attention to Miriam. This is partly because she and Paul are in love. They get married. Paul still hates Angel.
The kind banker and his family help to find homes for the two girls Angel saved, but Angel stays with him and his family until she has a conversion experience and accepts God. When she meets one of the other prostitutes who used to work for the Duchess, Angel comes up with the idea of starting a school for fallen women to help them escape the sex trade. With generous loans from the local business community, she puts her plan into action and works on it for several years.
Paul comes looking for Angel because everyone back in the country is going crazy without her. He finds her and thinks she's still a prostitute until the evidence literally can't be ignored any longer. He finally apologizes and also tells her that Michael is still pining for her. She agrees to go back to her husband.
Angel and Michael reunite. They love each other but love God more so everything is better now. She tells Michael that her name is Sarah. The epilogue reveals that despite her apparent infertility, after praying hard enough they eventually had four children. Their family "grew rich and famous." The end.
Hope you're still with me after all that.
Let's first talk about what I liked.
As I mentioned midway through the summary, Michael Hosea is a real gem. If anyone ever says "not all Christians," he's the guy they're talking about. I really liked him as the hero of this book. He still feels anger and disappointment and frustration in realistic ways. In fact, I think all the characters in the book are really well-realized. Paul is such an ass that it's hard to believe anyone wants him around, though. Angel is someone who's had a ton of trauma in her life and is legitimately wounded by it.
It was also kind of refreshing to read a book where the "adult content" fades to black. There's place for graphic depictions of violence, abuse, and (on the brighter side of the coin) sex in fiction, but I think there's also a place for something milder. And yeah, the book not only fades to black for Michael and Sarah/Angel's sex scenes, but it also doesn't graphically depict her being raped or abused as a child, or beaten by the Duchess's goon, so it's not falling prey to the weird double standard of violence being ok and consensual sex being verboten. It's all just left up to the reader's imagination.
Finally, despite my issues with some of the messaging in this book (we'll get to that), I think it does a good job portraying a loving and forgiving God. Said God doesn't quite jive with the one in the actual Book of Hosea, but oh well. I may be a lapsed Catholic, but that personal God who cares intimately and unconditionally is still appealing in my agnosticism, and I think that Redeeming Love handles the concept well.
Now, what I didn't like.
The prose in this novel is pretty basic; I can't really think of a better descriptor than that. It does the job, and like I mentioned it does a good job of bringing the characters to life. However, on the heels of the glittery Great Gatsby, it's clear that Redeeming Love doesn't have its own special rhythm or style.
And last but not least, some of the messaging in this book is just uncomfortable. It dances around the concept of Michael as the head of the household so that just beneath the surface you can see how he should be obeyed. This is even more evident with the Altman family. The book is also very into the idea of women as wives and mothers as the highest possible calling. I think it would be much stronger if Sarah never conceived and this was accepted by all those around her. The book instead evokes the biblical Sarah who conceived miraculously after man years. I know of several couples personally who have dealt with infertility despite years of prayers. I hate the implication in this book that these people just aren't godly enough or praying hard enough to have their own children.
If I have any sort of personal theology these days it could most accurately be described as "in flux." This book doesn't fit in with my beliefs, though; I can say that much for sure. Being definitely in the agnostic Catholic apostate camp, not to mention someone who typically doesn't like any kind of romance much, I'm not in the target market for this book anyway. For those who are, it's good enough I'm sure. I did enjoy my brief foray into Christian romance at least inasmuch as it allowed me to satisfy some curiosity. God knows I might even try it again sometime.