Monday, September 8, 2008

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers *****

Wow - who knew? This is "inspirational" aka Christian romance, and - despite my own personal dearth of faith - I loved this story! Ms. Rivers is an incredible writer.

I listened to the interview with the author at the end of this, and she is indeed a born-again Christian who is devoting her writing and her life to spreading God's Word. This is something that normally I run from, in a big way, as fast as possible.

I was raised Christian - so I do have some background and minimal education in this culture. Not really religious, but we did go to church pretty much every week when I was a child, and we were involved in the church socially. But I haven't darkened the door of any church for anything other than tourism or maybe a wedding in several decades. And I don't plan to start going to church or reading the Bible or anything now - this wasn't a born-again moment for me. In fact, I got this book to read to fulfill one book in a Challenge - so much for Challenges being a way to whittle away the TBR mountain!! I did a little research on inspirational romance, and just jumped into this one.

Redeeming Love is Ms. Rivers' first inspirational Romance. According to the interview, she wrote "steamy historical romance" before this, and then had her calling - and apparently she got the rights back to all those other books and they are no longer in print. Too bad, because her writing is really wonderful! She decided, however, that true love was between God and Man (or Woman) and not between Man and Woman, therefore her switch.

That's not to say there wasn't wonderful romance between a man and a woman, along with some good secondary romances as well. But nothing graphic, and basically the idea was that love of God comes first and other love stems from that. Or something like that, anyway. That's ok because she managed to put a boatload of tension, sexual and otherwise, into her story.

The story is based on the biblical story (surprised?) of Hosea and Gomer. Go figure, Gomer is a woman's name. It's a sort of allegory about God and Israel (the people) - how, no matter how much they strayed from his Word, God forgave them. In both this book and the Hosea/Gomer story, God tells the hero (Michael Hosea in this story) to wed a prostitute and to continue to love and forgive her no matter what.

In Redeeming Love Sarah aka Angel has a much more detailed and incredibly tragic story than what I could learn of Gomer's story via google. Sarah was born in 1832 to a single woman, May, who had an affair with a married man. He apparently set her up for 3 years, but declined to meet his daughter. He finally throws May and Sarah out of their house, at which point they go to May's parents, who also refuse to help. Down on their luck, they move to the docks area, get a shanty and a simpleton protector for several years. During this time, May turned tricks to help support them, as this was the only option left to her. When Sarah turned 8, May died - and the simpleton, not even knowing her name, sells her to a man he thinks is adopting her.

Unfortunately for Sarah, "Duke" isn't exactly adopting her. Instead, he's got a thing for little girls, and Sarah begins her life of prostitution at age 8. He gives her the name Angel because she's so beautiful she looks like one.

Michael Hosea traveled to California with his sister and brother-in-law Paul around 1848. His sister died on the way, and Paul decides to join the Gold Rush after they get land and build cabins. Michael is truly devout, and is waiting for God to reveal the woman meant to be his wife. By this time (1850), Angel has managed to run away from Duke and get to a place in California named Pair O'Dice (I am guessing at the spelling since I listened to the audio book) where she is the featured prostitute at The Palace. It's the nearest town to Michael's and Paul's land, and he sees her when he is in town selling his produce and getting supplies. He hears God tell him she's the one... and when he learns her career and reputation, he realizes he's being tested.

Just like the Hosea/Gomer story, Angel isn't convinced he's the one - and she runs away from him time after time, going back to turning tricks to support herself. While Michael is filled with patience - and well-described and realized love for her - she is filled with self-doubt and self-hatred. How can she ever trust a man, after being prostituted as a child? She learned her hatred of God and men also from watching how her mother's life played out - her dreadful biological father, her unforgiving grandfather, the awful way May died, with a rosary in her hands. As far as she's concerned, there is no God, there is only Hell on Earth for her, and she isn't worthy of anything better.

There were so many heart-wrenching things in Angel's short life - for one, she had 2 abortions while living with Duke, and during the second one, the doctor was ordered to permanently end her child-bearing ability. Even though she tells Michael, and he tells her it's ok and he still loves her, over time he does slip and say and do things that indicate he wants children. Another family moves to the area, and there's a daughter about Angel's age - a kind, lovely, virginal girl who seems to embody all the things Angel - and Paul - think Michael deserves in a wife. It's a constant source of pain and tension for Angel, and for Paul, to see Miriam and Michael together, even though Michael says they are just friends, and that Miriam sees him only as an older brother.

It's a very involved story, and I spent most of it on the virtual edge of my seat, hurting for Angel, hurting for Michael, even occasionally hurting for Paul (although mostly I wanted to strangle him for how much he assumed and messed up). Things that happened to Angel before she moved to California get revealed slowly, and on more than one occasion I gasped in shock. If you're going to read this, it isn't really a spoiler to know there is indeed a HEA (since it's a Romance) but it's so late in the story and so much happens to keep them apart that it was incredibly hard to keep reading without knowing for sure!!

And if you are somewhat squeamish about being preached at in a book of fiction that you intended to read for fun, you'll be glad to know she avoids it until the very end - there are lots of references to Michael's faith, and some references to the faith of the new neighbors (he's apparently an ordained minister, something which I didn't realize until late in the story) - but it's not overly preachy. Ok, at the very end (and I may be tainted by having listened to the interview which was proselytize-y) after Angel's conversion, it did start to get a little more preachy.

The narrator is Kate Forbes - I loved her narration of Linda Howard's Open Season (unfortunately, that was an abridged version) and she was wonderful in this one too. She has a sort of young-Judy-Garland thing going on with her voice, and her character voices are good and consistent. Her narration gets 5 stars from me.

So - ok - 5 stars too for Ms Rivers' incredible gift of story-telling, for her ability to confront child abuse, prostitution and the treatment of women in general and turn it into a wonderful story of the redeeming power of love.

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