Reviewing Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love was, for me, a lot like treading on holy ground. At least, that’s how iconic the novel seems to have become in many Christian circles. So several weeks ago when I took the Romance Challenge and pledged to read one Christian Romance novel, Redeeming Love was, as I expected, one of the most oft-recommended selections.
It’s hard not to have high expectations going into this book (especially seeing the 760+ 5 star reviews at Amazon) and, try as I might, I couldn’t disentangle this praise from my reading. More than once I had to stop and ask myself, What do people see in this book? I’ll conclude my review with, what I believe, is the enduring strength of the tale and, perhaps, its primary redemptive quality.
(Note: There are spoilers throughout this review.) In a nutshell, the story is about a prostitute named Angel who is relentlessly wooed by a god-fearing man named Michael. Touted as a retelling of the biblical story of Hosea and Gomer, it’s pretty obvious from the outset where this is headed. I felt that knowing this took some punch out of the story. However, employing a prostitute as the vehicle to demonstrate God’s boundless, tenacious love, is very effective. Who has not, upon realization of the Bridegroom’s great grace and mercy, felt like a used up whore? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I struggled through this book for two main reasons: Mediocre prose and redundancy.
Yes, Rivers shows flashes of poetry. But for the most part, I found her prose clunky to the point of distraction. There are few complex sentences, which for me, gave the reading an endless staccato feel. Here’s some samples of what I mean. Notice the employment (I’d say, overuse) of short, clipped sentences.
Angel hated her life. She hated the Duchess. She hated Magowan. She hated her own wretched helplessness. Most of all she hated the men for their relentless quest for pleasure. She gave them her body but not a particle more. Maybe there wasn’t any more. She didn’t know. And that didn’t seem to matter to any of the men. All they saw was her beauty, a flawless veil wrapped around a frozen heart, and they were enthralled. They looked into her angel eyes and were lost. (Kindle, location 810)
She didn’t want him bothering her anymore. He wanted her. She felt it radiating from his body, but he never did anything about it. He talked. He asked questions. He waited, for what she didn’t know. She was tired of trying to think up lies to make him happy. He just asked the same question again in a different way. He wouldn’t give up. Each time he came, he was more determined. (1238)
There are many more examples of this stylistic tendency.
Short sentences are important to a story and can provide necessary punch. Too many of them, however, has the exact opposite effect. I labored through Redeeming Love, in part, because of this.
Another bent of the author, one you will notice in the above quotes, is starting sentences with a pronoun.
- She hated
- She gave
- She didn’t know
- They looked
- She felt
- He waited
- She was tired
- He wouldn’t give up
I can’t recall reading a book where this bad habit is so predominant. It’s one I’d encourage every aspiring author to break themselves of. Which is probably why Redeeming Love is not a book I would use as an example of great Christian writing.
My second problem with the book was its redundancy. The story seemed to be covering the same ground. Angel sins. Michael takes her back. Angel falls. Michael takes her back. Angel leaves. Michael comes looking for her. Angel’s finally coming around. Michael is there when she does. By the middle of the book, I was tiring. It could be argued that this is the moral of Redeeming Love. We fall, again and again, and God’s “redeeming love” finds us. While this works existentially (I can attest to it!), it’s a difficult go for a reader. I felt like I was watching Peter Jackson drag out Kong’s death to the point of absurdity. After Angel’s third defection and restoration, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I get it already!”
I also want to take this opportunity to discuss edginess in Christian fiction. This is a topic I talk a lot about on my website and, frankly, is one of the reasons I decided to read Redeeming Love. You see, many Christians cite Redeeming Love as an example that Christian fiction can be edgy. However, after actually reading the book, I personally see the claim as lacking foundation.
I do not seek out books and films on the basis of their “family friendliness.” So this book really didn’t push any of my envelopes. There is no cursing and all the references are by implication. Yes, much of the story takes place among prostitutes and in brothels. However, if that alone is meant to be edgy, I’m missing something.
In fact, this G-rated axiom leads to some rather awkward moments. Like this one where the protags finally have, um, sexual relations:
When he kissed her, Angel was lost in a wilderness of new sensations. It had never felt like this, warm and wonderful, exciting and right. None of the old rules applied. She forgot everything she had ever learned from other masters. She was dry ground soaking in a spring rain, a flower bud opening to the sun. Michael knew and gently coaxed her with tender words flowing over her like the sweet balm of Gilead healing her wounds. And she flew, Michael with her, into the heavens. (5223)
“She was dry ground soaking in a spring rain”? She was “lost in a wilderness of new sensations”? She “flew” with her husband “into the heavens”? I’m sorry, but this is corny.
I also find it extremely interesting that Redeeming Love was first published in the general market. From the Wikipedia article:
The book was first published in the mainstream market by Bantam books in 1991. Because it was released by general market publisher, the book did not hold completely explicit Christian content, such as the baptismal scene in the book and Angel’s Christian conversion; however, when the book went out of print several years later, Rivers got the rights back to her book and made the additions to the novel. The novel was re-released by Multnomah Publishers in 1997.
Think about this: The book that is considered by many as the “gold standard” for Christian Romance was not first published as Christian Romance.
I find that fascinating. Don’t you?
The question I would pose to fans of CBA fiction, particularly CBA Romance, is what this fact says about the book and about the CBA, if anything? Could a book like Redeeming Love be published today in the CBA by a first-time author? Was the book’s ABA success necessary for its CBA acquisition? These are just a few questions that went through my mind.
But back to the book.
The strength of the story, in my opinion, is its redemptive arc and its parabolic whimsy. At times I felt like this was less a romance novel and more of a contemporary fable. The author has captured, however crudely, the essence of the Gospel of Grace. Angel, the orphaned girl turned prostitute, exemplifies the sinful wreckage of humanity, our wanderlust, our hardness of heart. And Michael, however one-dimensional he appears, reminds us of the Eternal God who will not rest in drawing us to Himself. It is a powerful, powerful theme. After spending time with this book, and mulling its popularity, I can reach no other conclusion but that its enduring quality lies in its alignment with this profound biblical reality: God loves sinners. Amen and amen.
I’ve taken a risk in reviewing this book, and I’m sure I’ll incur some wrath for it. I would probably give Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers three out of five stars. While I sincerely hope this isn’t “the best Christian Romance novel” out there, I believe Ms. Rivers captures something that is essential to good Christian fiction — a portrayal of the hellish depths of human depravity and the vast, unrelenting scope of God’s love. And for this, I applaud her.