23/07/2013

The Secret (by Beverly Lewis)

I don’t think I’ve come across Beverly Lewis before. Apparently she’s quite a prolific writer in the American Christian fiction world with around 80 published books. I chose this particular one primarily because it was available free for my Kindle a while ago. I’m not a huge fan of US-style Christian fiction, which can be quite twee and over-religious, but some books in this genre can make interesting light reading, and some are quite moving. I noticed when I downloaded it that this was the first of a trilogy, which is often the reason for a free offer: the writer (or publisher) hopes that readers will want to buy the other two books after reading the first one. At least, I thought it was the first novel of a series...

‘The Secret’, listed as 'Seasons of Grace' part 1, is contemporary fiction set in the heart of an Amish community in the US. This confused me totally when I started reading as I assumed, at first, that it must be historical fiction. The family seemed to spend their time baking and kneading by hand, going out early to milk cows, and taking out horses and buggies. They seemed to fit quite nicely into the 18th or 19th century. The odd dialect with old-fashioned style also fit though the occasional old German words thrown in were a bit annoying. Mention of a car, after a while, slightly jolted me; so I thought that perhaps it must be set in the early 20th century. I continued in this vein of thought until - after a few chapters - a completely different character called Heather is introduced, with sudden mention of computer and cell phone.

At that point I gave up for several weeks then returned to this book recently, skimming the first few chapters again as I had mostly forgotten what they were about. Knowing that the book was in fact contemporary, set in the Amish community of the US, meant that it made at least slightly more sense.

The main character is Grace, a young woman who is the viewpoint character for much of the book. Her parents are clearly troubled about something; her father, Judah, is a strong silent type who finds it difficult to talk about feelings; her mother Lettie is quite a contrast, and has been behaving rather oddly since the last barn-raising when she spent a long time chatting to a stranger. Grace herself isn’t quite sure what her future holds; there’s a young man who has been courting, but she’s not entirely sure how she feels about him.

Then Grace’s mother runs away from home...

Meanwhile Heather, who is trying to finish a graduate degree, receives a shocking medical diagnosis. She decides that, rather than take conventional treatment, she will try some more traditional, alternative methods at least for a few months. She also decides to take a break, and books a room staying with an Amish family; the connection is that this family are good friends of Grace and her family.

So there’s quite a bit of potential for an interesting novel, following Heather in her search for healing, Lettie in her uncovering of her secret, and her family as they learn to deal without her for a while.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. For one thing, this isn’t a complete novel: I was very annoyed to find that it simply stopped after Lettie’s secret was - finally - revealed, without any resolution or conclusion. It’s not the first part of a series at all, it’s just one part of a book, misleadingly sold as if it were a novel in its own right. Even if I had found it exciting and moving, I would have found this practice so irritating that I would not have bothered with the other parts (unless they were also available free).

As it is, I had pretty much lost interest in all the characters by about half way through. Heather’s story is barely touched upon, and Grace is a shadowy, undeveloped person who really shouldn’t have been a major player. Her siblings - whose names I have already forgotten - were worse. Lettie is perhaps the most interesting character, yet I never quite worked out what her personality was: at some points she seems ultra-compliant and rather feeble, at other points strong and determined. Her escape, and the way it’s done, did not seem believable.

The author evidently knows a great deal about Amish culture; at first I found it quite interesting to read of their lifestyle and practices, but gradually realised that this novel was - in part - demonstrating how very controlling the culture is. I had previously thought the Amish were wise in their rejection of the modern materialistic culture of the US. In this book (assuming it’s realistic) they are shown as hypocritical and sometimes cruel. I found the Christian elements rather disturbing as they felt so out of place.

The way Lettie was treated by her parents is appalling; the idea of young people having to go through bizarre rituals of courting before a very short engagement left me shaking my head in bewilderment. Casual references to lack of electricity, ‘permission’ - eventually - to use running water and gas, and the hypocrisy of refusing to own cars or phones while being at liberty to use other people’s, left me feeling quite shocked - not to mention the hints about being banished or punished by church elders. I did not know much about the Amish before this book, but quite liked my vague ideas about a simpler, pleasanter lifestyle. Clearly that’s far from the case.

If the point of this novel was to let readers know, in a roundabout way, how negative the Amish culture is, then it succeeded. If it was to explore the lives of a few different women, then it didn’t work at all. There’s far too much introspective pondering, and viewpoint changes even within chapters which really weren’t at all helpful. I never managed to get inside anybody’s head or heart - and so felt untouched by the whole thing.

I suppose I would quite like to have known whether or not Heather received any kind of healing from her vacation and alternative treatments (I assume she probably did), and whether Lettie ever returned home... again, I would guess that she did. But it was only a passing feeling. I didn’t actually care about any of the characters sufficiently to wade through another couple of volumes of the same kind of thing.

Not recommended. Other reviews claim that this is nowhere near as good as the author's other books, but I don't think I will be looking out for anything else that she wrote. Available in print form or Kindle.

Review copyright Sue’s Book Reviews, 23rd July 2013

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