Category Archives: novels about courtship

Ugh, More “Rules:” Cozy Campus “Chick Lit” for Mormon Girls (MML Summer Reading AND Back-to-School Edition)

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Fowers, Stephanie.  Rules of Engagement.  American Fork, UT:  Covenant, 2005.

Samantha Skyler is a 25-year-old undergrad at BYU on her way to becoming an unhappy old maid.  She shares a run-d0wn apartment in one of Provo’s generic BYU-approved apartment complexes with three single co-eds who are no spring chickens themselves, at least by respectable Mormon standards.  So as finals loom one fall semester, the four girls of apartment C6 suffer much consternation at being single.  They anxiously abide the overbearing advice of fellow student ward member, Harrison Bean, a Brit with Henry Higgins’ pretensions, who appears halfway through the narrative to school the hand-wringing maids on how to catch one of the eligible men who reside conveniently within their ward boundaries.

In their often half-hearted and messy pursuit,  studying for finals is pushed to the periphery:  they hilariously decorate their already decorated apartment for Christmas, engage in ultimate frisbee games with their Family Home Evening brothers in the snow, pretend to study in the library so they can be “safe-walked” home by male ward members, swipe objects from these same brothers’ pad and hold them for ransom behind their own apartment’s “chastity line,” attend church meetings, and throw dessert parties–not necessarily in that order.  Somehow, in spite of herself, Samantha–the most unconventional (she plays rock guitar), poorly groomed, and uncensored (“Dash Diddly Dog!” she constantly “curses”)–co-ed of the lot ends up with the boy she least expects to end up with, and now she won’t have to worry about that career she was dreading after all.

Key Quotes:  ” . . . I saw Scott too late.  He was brooding in the hallway and I smacked right into him, almost pushing him over the Chastity Line.  He teetered over the invisible barrier that exists in all BYU apartments between the front room and the hall that leads to the bedrooms” (28).

“‘Maybe you’re right,’ I said. ‘I shouldn’t date.  I should just give up and become a Mormon nun'” (127).

“Of course, we had only half a week left to get engaged, which was completely improbable, but Harrison could work miracles, especially if I could get a date out of the deal.  A date was practically an engagement anyway, right?  Especially at BYU” (237).

What Makes It Marginal:  While not affiliated with the LDS Church, Covenant only publishes “faith-promoting” books that adhere to LDS Church standards, so the “marginal” here is pretty minimal:  Samantha plays rock guitar, is an aspiring author, and an unapologetically terrible cook.  She displays an irreverence at odds with conventionally constructed Mormon womanhood.  The Articles of Faith are satirically riffed on.  The idea of rushing into marriage is called into question to some degree:  the “high rate” of Mormon divorce is mentioned.  The compulsion to marry  before graduation is a BYU cliche that’s very operative here.

What Makes It Mormonal:   Scenes take place at church meetings, characters adhere to and reference BYU rules, students fulfill church callings.  The general portrait constructed here is one of a unified community of faithful, believing LDS students.  The only thing resembling physical contact between any of these young single adults are furtive elbow grabs and one awkward mistletoe kiss between one couple.

My Two Cents:   Technically, as a piece of non-literary, faith-promoting fiction–this falls out of the boundaries of my original MML Library School study, but I felt compelled to blog about a piece of Mormon “chick lit,” which this novel’s been marketed as.  Overall, I found the novel tedious, although it did accurately represent the boredom, time-wasting, and silliness inherent campus life, particularly at BYU.   Still, there is so much glaring, flouncing off,  stomping around and pointless consternation among and between the characters, that I found myself skipping pages, and the characters, in their realistic-for-BYU homogeneity,  quickly began to resemble each other.  Samantha, the protagonist, stands out, however, and often refers to herself as “punk,” and she’s boisterous and physical, and relatively uncensored.  In light of this, it was troubling for me to see her lament so pitiably about growing old and single, but I fear that is an accurate reflection of the way so many single female students still see themselves on BYU campus, where the emphasis is still not so much on academics for women, as on matrimony and future motherhood.

When Good Mormon Families Go (Mildly) Bad

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Hallstrom, Angela. Bound on Earth.  Woodsboro, MD:  Parables, 2008.

Three generations of Palmers, a devout Mormon family, alternatively narrate separate, but linked, personal stories, and in the process construct a complex and often troubling family history.  Everyone’s flawed here to varying degrees:  Unable to deal with her husband Kyle’s mental illness, Beth is wracked with guilt over leaving him;  the early marital troubles of Beth’s parents, Nathan and Alicia, are revisited; awkward older sister Marnie  doesn’t want to go on a mission after BYU; youngest sister Tina is a tattooed and troubled apostate, Grandmother Tess acutely feels the strain of her spouse’s stroke. Hallstrom delicately, and at times starkly, turns the genre of the “Mormon-mandated personal history” on its ear, in her honest novel about imperfect, intertwined lives.

Key Quote: “What if Mr. Glassing got in real trouble?  What if he got so mad he decided to heck with all of us?  It was embarrassing, sometimes, being these sheltered Mormon kids who never got to experience Real Life or understand True Art.  I could tell Mr. Glassing felt sorry for us” (109).

What Makes It Marginal: Doubt of God’s influence in one’s life is expressed, the implications of mental illness and Mormonism is explored, a child’s testimony during sacrament meeting is seen as cliched, Tina has an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and marries outside the Church.

What Makes It Mormonal: Characters are temple wed, full-time mission veterans, the inclusion of popular Mormon dictums like “Families Can Be Together Forever”

My Two Cents: I’m not a big fan of narratives told from a variety of perspectives.  There are so many personal stories to keep track of here (I found myself having to frequently consult the little genealogical chart at the front of the book), and at times the prose style is too tentative and diffuse, but Hallstrom is to be commended for gently deconstructing long circulated “cozy” notions of what it means to be an eternal family without being at all polemical.

Swarthy Bostonian Converts, Makes Disfellowshipped Orem RM’s Life Even More Complex

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Bigelow, Christopher Kimball. Kindred Spirits.  Provo, Utah:  Zarahemla, 2007.

Returned missionary and ex-patriate Utahan, Eliza Spainhower unwittingly meets a potential mate when she leaves “pass-along cards” for proselytizing  cards on a Boston subway car. As fervent a Mormon as she is, Eliza’s been disfellowshipped from full membership due to a recent sexual indiscretion that she’s still trying to repent from. This new man (“a dark Easterner” ) Eric–a non-Mormon who she thinks could be converted–is making the path back difficult, however, and Eliza will test the limits of her own repentance process as she tries to simultaneously convert Eric and become intimately involved in his complex life.

What makes it Marginal: A general irreverence or realistic/humanistic view of sacred rituals:  for example, Eliza laughs at the way her father looks in his baptismal clothes.  Realistic and sympathetic view of Wicca.  Descriptions of pre-marital sexual activity.  Respectful allusions to alternative/scholarly Mormon-themed journals like Sunstone and Dialogue. Eliza has a tarot reading.  Descriptions of non-doctrinal Mormon beliefs.

What makes it Mormonal: Mormon characters readily allude to spiritual experiences:  Eliza’s mother mentions seeing the spirit of dead son in a priesthood blessing circle. Eric admires Eliza’s parents lavish food storage: there is a missionary guided tour of Temple Square, a priesthood blessing, frank discussions of deep Mormon doctrine, and detailed scenes of Eric’s baptism, and a family sealing ceremony in the novel’s epilogue.  Eliza’s father and uncles are  named after Nephite military officers from the Book of Mormon

Key Quotes: “She told herself that she drank instant decaf simply for the good flavor, but she knew deep down that she was being a little passive-aggressive toward the church” (12).

“After that she never binged and purged again, but she sometimes wondered about Hanniah, trying to remember more about her.  Why had Hanniah chosen to take the devil’s side? Had Eliza almost followed on that path?  As a tempting spirit, had Hanniah been whispering evil ideas into Eliza’s head since she’d reached the age of accountability?” (106).

My two cents: The fact that Zarahemla publisher Bigelow self-published this title  might make it easy to dismiss, but Bigelow confidently channels Levi S. Peterson‘s earthy realism, making a relatively conventional redemption/conversion narrative feel original, in a large part due to Bigelow’s obvious fascination with non-doctrinal Mormon beliefs which he  at times bumps up against Wiccan beliefs and practices.

Two Virgins Have the Same Naughty Dreams

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Woodbury, Eugene. The Path of Dreams. Portland: ME: Peaks Island Press, 2007. Print.

While serving a Mormon mission in Japan, Elaine Cheiko Packard (Elly) has erotically charged dreams featuring a young man she spotted only once and briefly on a train platform. Now a returned missionary and a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Elly runs into the “lover” from her dreams: fellow BYU-student Connor McKenzie, and it turns out the dreaming has been mutual. In fact, stateside, their respective dreams have grown even more intense, despite the fact that the two have barely spoken to each other. Even Connor’s reading of the classic Church-sanctioned repentance tome The Miracle of Forgiveness does not keep the dreams at bay. In Elly’s case, the dreams have her so certain she will marry Connor, that she procures birth control pills even before they’ve scheduled a first date. After four weeks of chaste and rather breathless meetings on campus and a Sunday dinner or two at Connor’s aunt’s, they marry in the Provo temple, move into the aunt’s basement and continue a simple life as married humanities students. Then they get mild intimations that respective dead ancestors had arranged this marriage all along.

What Makes it Marginal: Allusions to and mild descriptions of sexual relations (in the context of dreams and post-marital), wet dreams, relatively frank discussions of adolescent quasi-sexual activity, Elly frankly–and with some surprise and unfettered delight–informs her former roommate/missionary companion that sex is “fun.” Elly refers mentally one of Connor’s relatives as a “son of a bitch.”

What Makes it “Mormonal:” Two devout returned missionaries culminate the narrative with a hastily arranged temple marriage and then weeks later return to the temple to act as proxies in the sealing of dead relatives.

Key Quote: “”Nothing in his personal experience [. . .] could have provided him with the substance of his dreams. / Connor was still a virgin. Common enough among Mormons his age” (11).