Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don't You Marry The Mormon Boys

The book jacket's summary of Janet Jensen's debut novel, Don't You Marry The Mormon Boys, describes a story about two people from different backgrounds and belief systems (Andy is mainstream LDS and Louisa was raised in a polygamous fundamentalist community) who fall in love at medical school but face overwhelming obstacles in an effort to be together.

That was the story I was expecting and found myself disappointed with the story I was actually given. Andy and Louisa do, in fact, face these obstacles, but it is never the focus of the story. In fact, were it not for a few flashbacks to medical school, there is no mention of these two main characters together in the same chapter, much less the same plot for the first 200 pages. Andy does his rural, family practice medical thing in Kentucky, which seems a completely unnecessary setting to me (unless the far fetched and wholly irrelevant ending was somehow important to the story of Andy and Louisa's journey....which it is not), and Louisa returns to her polygamous community to realize that her eyes have been changed to the situation around her after eight years of living away from it.

Sure there are a few wistful thoughts, memories and even dreams about the other, but the reason for their attraction, or friendship, is never explained. Andy thought she was beautiful, in spite of her plain, long ankle length dress, and crowning glory long hair, but apparently pursued a relationship with her because she was so smart and he wanted to study with her. (????) The reader is never given any information about Louisa's feelings towards Andy. There is simply an assumption that because she spent time with him, she fell in love with him. The hows and the whys are not worth mentioning, I suppose. Without that development of their relationship for the readers to hold onto, I didn't yearn for these two to be together. As their individual stories don't actually intersect until page 197, a little yearning would have been nice. But, that doesn't seem to be the point of the book.

The thing I liked most about this novel was Jensen's humanistic portrayal of polygamous families. It's always troubled me that the media, pop culture and even the mainstream LDS church portray them as crazy, mindless followers without any thought or choice about their lifestyle. Jensen shows a side of their families and individuals who honestly believe what they practice, and that they do it for the same reason a lot of us do whatever it is we do - because we think it's what God has commanded us to do. I also appreciated the look inside their culture...from the need to protect themselves from outsiders to the organizations of their households. Considering the current events going on in Texas, it adds a deeper understanding to the story. But, that doesn't seem to be the point of the book either.

It isn't all sunshine, however, and as Louisa's eyes are opened to the real problems of their community (abuse, incest, birth defects, depression) she becomes a target of opposition to the community - particularly to the Council of Brethren, who seem like old, scary, mean men without a compassionate bone in their bodies. Again, this black and white portrayal of the community's leadership seems too clean and villainous to be true. Surely, there are some members who are able to be something other than completely dogmatic. It doesn't matter, though, because, once again, this conflict with Louisa does not seem to be the point of the book.

In the end, I'm not sure what the point is, or was supposed to be. Andy and Louisa seem more like conduits for the author to expound on the quirks and habits of rural Kentucky and polygamy than actual characters. The part of the story where they are actually together and communicating and conflicting only warrants 40 or so pages. Then the story jumps tracks and heads off in an entirely new direction - one I won't mention because it will seem like I am reviewing another book. I felt like it was a different book.

I guess I feel mostly disappointed because I didn't get the story I was promised. I didn't get Andy and Louisa's story. Not really.

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