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Crises of faith and family – ‘God Spare the Girls’

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Faith is a funny thing.

We all have it, in some way, shape or form. Everyone believes in something, whether it is an institution or an ideology or an individual, though that belief is often an entanglement of two or more of those things. We believe even in the absence of evidence. Sometimes, we believe in the face of evidence to the contrary. That’s part of how it works.

But what happens if the object of your faithfulness proves questionable in its worthiness?

Kelsey McKinney’s debut novel “God Spare the Girls” (William Morrow, $27.99) addresses just such a circumstance. Told through the eyes of a teenager living as part of an evangelical family in Texas, it’s the story of how the fallibility of others can cause one to struggle with one’s own faith. It’s about the pressures that come with expectation, of the need to maintain a public face even as one’s private world is crumbling. And it’s about family – both the connections that are and the ones we wish for.

It’s a compelling and beautifully written tale, a book that captures the hubris and hypocrisy that can come from institutionalized faith while also finding ways to acknowledge the value that such circumstances can bring. Delicately heartwrenching, driven by sad realizations and quiet humor, it’s an unforgettable read.

Caroline Nolan is part of, for lack of a better term, church royalty. Her father Luke Nolan is a rising star in the evangelical world, the pastor of a burgeoning megachurch in the Texas town of Hope. Her mother Ruthie is the image of the perfect pastor’s wife – perfectly-coiffed hair, immaculate dress, a constant smile. Her older sister Abigail is seemingly perfect – pious and brilliant, already an old hand at helping to pen her father’s sermons; she was largely responsible for the sermon on purity that went viral and helped push Luke into greater prominence.

But Caroline is losing her connection to this world. She’s pretty sure that Abigail is marrying the wrong man for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to Caroline. She’s got some questions about just why God would care about her own “purity,” such as it is, and is pushing against some of those boundaries. She’s tired of the pasted-on smiles and the constantly watching eyes – so much so that, despite her father’s disapproval, she’s going to go to go away to college rather than staying close to home.

And then it all blows up.

Luke Nolan – esteemed man of God and purity proponent – fell from grace. And as word spreads, Caroline and her family are forced to deal with the fallout. Caroline and Abigail, overwhelmed by the situation, remove themselves to their grandmother’s ranch, one of the few places where they can simply be, away from the prying eyes and chattering lips of their father’s congregation. But as Abigail’s wedding day approaches, Caroline must reckon with the actions of her family. Connections grow more tenuous with each revelation; Caroline is confronted with the reality that perhaps she doesn’t know anyone – even her family – as well as she once believed.

Look, folks: this is a good book. A REALLY good book. It would be a notable achievement for any writer, let alone a debut novelist (though anyone who has followed McKinney’s work up to and including her excellent output at Defector.com likely isn’t surprised).

There’s a remarkable sense of place here, a blend of writ-large ideas and intimate details that adds up to an evocative encapsulation of the setting. Ever read a book where the prose was so engrossing that you didn’t just intellectually, but viscerally experience the environment? Seriously – McKinney will straight-up make you sweat.

And then you have the interpersonal dynamics. McKinney has drilled down into the bedrock, pulling you into the expansive yet insular world of the Nolan family. While I have little familiarity with this particular brand of Southern evangelicalism, it doesn’t matter – everything I needed to understand was brought forth through Caroline’s eyes and experiences. The collision of religion and pragmatism is particularly striking – a collision we view in multiple forms and from multiple perspectives.

Oh, and just so we’re clear – it’s also a hell of a story. I can talk about craft and character until the cows come home, but all of that is in service to a narrative that is thoughtful and clever and engrossing as hell. It’s a cliché to call a book a page-turner, but I’d be remiss if I failed to address just how readable “God Spare the Girls” is. Almost compulsively so – McKinney grabs hold of you almost immediately and refuses to let go, drawing you into the story, tempting and challenging and generally doing all the things good writers do.

“God Spare the Girls” is an exceptional piece of fiction, sad and smart and driven by an overarching verisimilitude. What McKinney has created feels like a real place with real people, all while sharing their stories of faith gained or lost or somewhere in-between. Believing matters – but what often matters more is that (or those) in which (or whom) we choose to believe.

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 08:21

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