On unknowingly reading a Christian novel

cover of the secrets of paper and ink on an ipad on a table

This might be the most rant-driven post I’ve ever written. It’s also going to be completely spoiling The Secrets of Paper and Ink by Lindsay Harrel, so read at your own caution. Also, I’d like to leave this disclaimer that I don’t exactly have a problem with people who are religious – one of the things about religion that bugs me the most is when God is presented as the answer to a problem. I have a lot of thoughts to work out on my own about religion but right now I want to focus on the kind of hilarious escapade I’ve had in reading and how furious it’s left me. 

So, read on for my review of The Secrets of Paper and Ink.

Yesterday before I settled in for a night of reading, I watched some of John Mulaney’s SNL episode. His monologue included a joke about marrying a Jewish woman..

“Before we got married, my mother asked me if my wife was going to convert to Catholicism. You’re right to laugh. It’s a stupid question. I don’t know mom, let me go ask! Let me go see if a 29-year-old Jewish woman, who doesn’t like any of my suggestions, would convert to, what was it again? Roman Catholicism? How would I even have that conversation? Would you come home with a brochure and go ‘Hey, Honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not new organization. Don’t Google us! You know that strange look of shame and unhappiness I have in my eyes at all times especially after sex and it was all forced on me at birth? What if you voluntarily signed up for it!?”

That set me up for the rest of my night, and right around the time, I discovered how Christian this book was which had a great section on their site that explained everything in detail, but soon after I started having an uncontrollable sneezing attack. Dust or religion? That’s up to me to decide.

First, a little context. Categorization is very important in publishing. There are multiple systems of codes that each book is assigned by the publisher – sections based on where they’d be shelved in bookstores or libraries or on Amazon. However, mis-categorization happens all the time – in particular at my work at a play publisher we laugh a lot when romance books are slipped into drama sections because if they’re dramatic they must be drama. And as a blogger and someone who works in publishing, normally I pay attention to those categories or the names of publishers before I read something. But sometimes I like to go in blind in hopes of finding a great new story. If I had looked up the name of this book’s publisher before I read it, I would have immediately ignored it. The thing is, people who are not in this profession would never pay attention to stuff like this. This book arrived on my shelves courtesy of the publisher Thomas Nelson (again, which I hadn’t noticed) approving my request on Netgalley, since it was in the Women’s Fiction section, not the Christian section. Where it should not have been. A story about two women trying to heal from past trauma in a bookshop? With a gorgeous cover? Finding lost letters? Sign me up.

Books had always been her escape. Here, she hoped they’d become her healing.

The Secrets of Paper and Ink has three different stories going on about women trying to figure out their lives. There’s Sophia, a women’s therapist who has been on medical leave since her fiancee died, but the worst part is that he had been physically abusing her, and she’s been unable to help other women while she’s processing her trauma. There’s Ginny, who rejected her old money American family in favour of a British man and his dream of owning a bookshop, which she didn’t want, only to have been left high and dry with a floundering business while he has gone off to figure himself out. Then there is Emily, whose story is told through diary entries from the 1850s – she’s a governess for a rich family, in anguished love with the son and she wants to be an authoress in a time when women weren’t allowed to write. These three stories get swept up together when Sophia finds an ad that Ginny placed for an apartment above the bookshop in return for working a few shifts there, and she takes off from Arizona without a thought (if you follow me on Twitter you will know that I have been terribly consumed with who she left in charge of her beloved cat, and reader, I still don’t know). The two women become fast friends, and Sophia then finds a notebook of copied diary entries that turned out to be Emily’s. Sophia goes on a desperate hunt for the story behind the story, in hopes of finding a spark to write her own story, and Ginny is trying to save a shop that represents the only place she’s ever felt like she belongs. There are romance side plots for Sophia and Ginny, but they never get very far because both women realize they’re still too hurt to fully commit to someone. Alright, that’s responsible, fine.

Now, before I get into all the hoopla of it being a religious book, I also want to note that the writing was quite awful. The Emily storyline felt out of sync with the rest of the book most of the time, even though it was supposed to be the thing that glued it together. There were missing details that were distracting (LIKE THE CAT, COME ON). I didn’t know Sophia was American until she arrived in England. Sometimes I’d have to rewind a bit in my reading, thinking I skipped a page when I hadn’t. The stories of Sophia and Ginny never felt fully fleshed out – even towards the end I was still feeling that I needed more context as to why Sophia was so bent on retracing Emily’s story. Why Ginny just trusted that her husband was still going to return.  The notebook that Sophia found was the diary entries, but that was never actually pointed out, which was important since Emily was writing about writing fiction. I wasn’t sure until much later. I also predicted every plot point to the book (except the religion thing) from the get-go. I also get frustrated and distracted when so much of a story is just written as questions because it feels lazy.

Now here’s where I get to the religion. I’m okay if characters are religious. Though not in my face about it. I understand what it can mean to people, but I don’t understand why you’d let it govern your life or why it starts wars. I don’t believe in a God, and you can see I have quite the aversion to it. I’ve never felt the need for it. Anyways. There were a few mentions of God to which I winced and then brushed off.

“If you recall, he also said there’s always a chance. Let’s just take it one step at a time, all right? Follow the clues. If we are meant to figure this out, we will. Have faith.” Have faith in who? Herself? That had been a dismal failure considering all she’d been through.

Things didn’t really kick up a notch until about 70% into the book.

They faced Port Willis, a town she’d never seen from this angle, down at the lowest end of Main Street looking upward. The hills surrounded the village and a few large homes dotted the ridges. Here there was such a sense of calm, the air so pure, the quiet so stirring. She could almost sense God in this moment. That thought surprised her. After all, religion in the Bentley household had been all about what was good and heaping blessings on their heads. When something fell through, God was unkind and unfair. Ironic that she’d spent the last several years spurning her parents’ ways, yet had still unintentionally absorbed so many of their beliefs.

I was also perplexed as to why these romance stories weren’t including sex when they so clearly could have.

But what absolutely infuriated me was the ending, the point when I realized this was not a regular Women’s Fiction novel. There was an obvious solution to both Sophia and Ginny’s problems: Sophia would buy the bookshop with her inheritance from her abusive dead fiancee in order to stay in England and be happy with her new man, so then Ginny would be able to go to culinary school like she always wanted and pay off her divorce. These were things they wanted so badly but refused to acknowledge or even notice. It was so obvious the entire time, but neither character thought of it until they realized that God was the answer to their problems first. And it took a long time to get there.

All of this… it didn’t mean anything on its own. But the cumulative effect was something wondrous to behold, and it all added up to one thing: Moving forward and healing didn’t come from marching through life alone, determined to succeed with no help. And it didn’t come from wallowing in her shame. It didn’t even come from standing in her own strength. It meant taking the hand of a Savior and letting him lead her, wherever that may be.

And then for Emily, she spends the whole book pining after Edward, but when she can’t have him, turns to God and everything is suddenly dandy, even after her pastor father died from alcoholism after saying God failed him for letting his wife die. SIGH. I guess this is kind of a hilarious parallel of me not realizing what the book was? Sophia and Ginny don’t have their heavens-opening-up moments allowing them to live their lives the way they wanted to until they know Emily had hers. Suddenly everything is clear! I hated that they couldn’t figure things out on their own, and that they “surrendered” to God after being so ruthlessly treated by men.

“But I’m starting to believe there’s a reason for everything that happens. Others might call it fate or karma. But I think it’s God. He’s been directing our steps this whole time, Ginny. Even when we didn’t believe.” Ginny pulled her knees into her chest and rested her chin on top. “I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in God. I guess I just never thought of him as being much more than some guy in the sky with the power to crush us if he wanted to.” “I know what you mean. My mom raised me in church, but my own faith has wavered in the past few years. I thought I had to do everything on my own, but it turns out I don’t. I’ve slowly opened myself back up to that childlike faith I had once upon a time. And in doing that, I’ve figured out why Emily’s story inspires me so much, why I felt this burning need to know if she was real or not.”

Uuuuughhhh!!!!! As we can see through just the quotes in this post, this book has preached conversion. This reads like an infomercial. They were lost in life before and now they’re not! These scared women don’t need to be scared anymore! Nooooo.

I just… can’t get all those hours of my life back. I read the whole thing. I feel betrayed by books. I feel angry as a feminist. I am frustrated this wasn’t categorized properly. It was an interesting experience though, seeing what Christian novels are like, knowing it’s a huge market. I am fully aware of this as well as the big presence of Christian faith in the stationery and scrapbooking communities.

I hope my friends who have faith are not offended by this post. And they are free to tell me so if they are, I’m open to a discussion. Though I hope anyone can be aware of how writing like this can be damaging and frustrating. I was so disappointed, hoping that these women could find their own strengths only to be shown that as soon as they accepted this invisible hand they could let go of trying to figure things out for themselves.

I’ve already ranted way too much on this. There’s more I could say and more things about the plot I haven’t even mentioned. I’m going to go back to reading a book about a teenage girl starting a sex education program at her high school after being frustrated by an abstinence-only curriculum. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! I will leave you with this ridiculous bit of epilogue in which Emily’s love interest Edward comes back after years away and explains his cheating wife’s absence (and thus giving permission for him and Emily to get together).

“Last year, Rosamond died. She contracted a disease thanks to her . . . exploits.”

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