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Journeys to joy, contentment and renewal
At its best and most engaging, Christian fiction wrestles with issues of belief in a way that resonates with the reader, encouraging self-reflection and growth. These three novels present life in full, shining a light on its heartaches but also its opportunities for redemption and renewal. The truths the characters in each story learn, oftentimes painfully, can be applied to readers’ own journeys of faith.
In The Sky Beneath My Feet, Lisa Samson introduces us to Beth, a mother of two teenage sons and wife of a men’s pastor at a stereotypical megachurch.
Beth’s first-person narration, filled with questions and stream-of-consciousness shifts that at times resemble journal entries, indicates that all is not well. Beth is looking for more and not finding it. Her husband Rick is, too, but he’s decided to spend his one-month sabbatical from church duties holed up in the shed behind their house waiting to hear from God, rather than go on the beach vacation that Beth envisioned.
Left alone to navigate the challenging lives of her sons and her own heart’s questions, Beth struggles to reconcile who she was with who she is. As in her novels Quaker Summer and Embrace Me, Samson assembles a motley cast of supporting characters for Beth to interact with on the way to finding God and herself again. I alternated between laughing and cringing at Beth’s onslaught of unexpected encounters: from watching an eccentric artist neighbor use Rick as her muse for a church mural, to joining up with peace marchers, to rescuing a girl from a drug overdose in an inner-city halfway house.
Besides entertaining the reader, Samson does an excellent job of relating the feeling of being stuck in place with the wheels spinning—something both believers and nonbelievers can relate to. As the novel draws to a close, Rick and Beth find themselves where they were desperately seeking to be, though it wasn’t achieved through their efforts after all.
Denise Hildreth Jones’ Secrets Over Sweet Tea revels in its Southern setting of Franklin, Tennessee. Much like her popular Savannah from Savannah series, this book is peppered with endearments and occasional outlandish “Southernisms” that will make anyone who’s spent time in the South—including this native Alabamian—feel welcome.
Southern charm aside, the pain Jones’ three main characters are dealing with is real and universal. Grace, an early morning news anchor, is devastated by her broken marriage. Zach, a divorce lawyer, has lost direction and meaning in his life—and risks losing his twin daughters and wife because of his costly attempts to fill those voids. And Scarlett Jo, the lively pastor’s wife who loves to get up close and personal with everyone she meets, seems like the most open book of them all, until her secret surfaces at last. Jones unfurls each person’s story one piece at a time, revealing the fractures in her characters’ lives, the friendships they build and the steps they must take to reclaim their hearts.
As an author’s note attests, Secrets Over Sweet Tea grew out of a time of great pain and a journey to healing in Jones’ personal life. Her characters’ lives are not neatly sewn up or perfectly polished (as is too often the case with inspirational fiction), another reason to appreciate this redeeming story.
CHANGED BY GRACE
One Sunday by Carrie Gerlach Cecil also has a Southern setting—and is also partly drawn from the author’s experience. The story’s broken protagonist, L.A. socialite Alice Ferguson, is struggling to adjust to life in Nashville following a one-night stand with a Southern doctor that results in pregnancy.
Agreeing to have Burton’s child, and to move in with the good doctor, uproots Alice from a lifestyle of drinking, drugging and reporting on celebrity exploits via her online tabloid, Trashville. With her new husband on call more often than not, Alice turns to her neighbor Tim, a former pro football player turned pastor. Boredom and a hunger for his wife LeChelle’s fried chicken are her initial reasons for striking up a friendship with this conservative couple, but it becomes something more. Eventually she accepts Tim’s invitation to church, and we learn more about Alice’s past, via flashbacks, as she alternately smirks at and soaks up the worship service.
Cecil writes in a fast-paced style that cuts from scene to scene like a movie, rifling through the fragmented memories of her displaced protagonist and bringing them into focus. (Her previous novel, Emily’s Reasons Why Not, became an ABC television series.) Pop-culture references abound, and Alice’s biting commentary is always at the ready. At times, the snark is a bit much, but as Alice sifts through her past, she starts to respond to the pain she’s bottled up and lets her façade slip. Cecil writes movingly about believing and trusting in God in prose that will touch the reader as the message sinks deep into Alice’s heart. This is a riveting story of profound change.