Romance accounts for over 50% of all fiction sold, according to industry records, and it appears this trend holds true for LDS fiction as well. Bodice rippers, steamy bedroom scenes in LDS books? No, these cliches don’t accurately describe LDS romance novels where the emphasis is on love rather than lust. Mormon romances tend to be geared more toward building a lasting relationship than to being swept away by uncontrollable passion.
Romance is one of the exciting genres being explored by readers of LDS fiction today. The list of writers for the LDS market is now quite long, where just ten years ago we had only a tiny handful of novels and few writers, most of which wrote historicals. There is a now a sampling of almost every fiction genre represented by LDS authors. And while the “Great Mormon Novel” has not yet been written, I believe that much of what is being published today has lasting value. I am aware that critics of LDS novels say that these novels are not literary, but I see literary quality emerging. And just as some of the finest writing in general fiction is appearing in the form of romance, or relationship novels, the same can be said of LDS fiction.
Michele Ashman Bell is one of those writers who has made a solid impact on today’s LDS fiction market. She consistently writes a believable love story while conveying a second story of spiritual growth. With Written in the Stars, she has stepped away from the falling-in-love theme and has some important things to say about the happily-ever-after years, that in this case–as in many LDS homes–aren’t always terribly happy.
Some critics accuse contemporary LDS romance novels of lacking realism because they don’t contain vulgar and profane language, explicit sex scenes, nor are the female protagonists as liberated as some would like. Modern fiction today, especially women’s fiction, tends to downplay the role of men in women’s lives other than as sexual partners. Even some LDS novels fall into this trap, while others still cling to an old “me Tarzan, you Jane” stereotype, or in the case of Mormon fiction it’s “me, all-knowing Priesthood head of the house, you helpmeet.” Michele Ashman Bell portrays women as strong individuals in their own right and creates a husband-wife relationship based on equal commitment from both parties with neither the female nor male role being of greater value than the other.
It’s true LDS novels generally have happy endings, the love story is slanted toward a female audience, the story is fairly simple, and it is meant to entertain. The same might be said for most romance novels published world wide. It’s what readers want and Mormon readers are no different. Sister Bell differs here because she also delivers a strong spiritual message. This is what sets the LDS version of the genre apart from the usual romance. The popularity of authors such as Sister Bell points out the need for novels that fall within our own moral framework, and readers feel that if a book entertains and uplifts at the same time, so much the better.
Written in the Stars is about Michaela and Ben Reynolds, who met in high school and married in the temple after he returned from an LDS mission. Their marriage started out as the realization of all their dreams. They were in love and they were best friends. Twenty years later they are so busy being parents, earning a living, serving in their church callings, and taking responsibility for Michaela’s mother who recently suffered a stroke their relationship with each other has been “temporarily” placed on hold. There’s no anger, quarreling, or outside love interest coming between them. They are simply so busy doing all the things good Mormons are supposed to do, that they have no time to give each other, and they drift apart.
As a stay-at-home mom raising six children, mostly alone because her husband’s career requires a great deal of travel and he’s the ward Bishop, Michaela resents having to give up her own life. Her background in music has allowed her to teach piano lessons until a difficult pregnancy, followed by the time restraints of caring for her children–particularly twin baby boys who are rambunctious toddlers when this story opens-cause her to give up this outlet. Although Michaela’s mother is being looked after in a care facility, Michaela feels the additional demand on her time from visiting her mother, with whom she never did get along. Sister Bell, a bishop’s wife herself, has first-hand knowledge of the challenge and work load of a Bishop’s wife.
To me the scenes that show the changing relationship with her mother are some of the most touching in the book. Struggling to overcome the limitations of a paralyzing stroke, the mother attempts to make amends for her past mistakes and to communicate her love to her daughter although her speech has been impaired. Through this experience Michaela finds peace and understanding with the now-silent woman she never really knew.
When one of Michaela’s closest friends, who is a travel agent, suggests a vacation trip to an island paradise, Michaela is convinced that the trip will be the means of reviving her marriage. But Ben refuses to consider the idea. Maybe another time, he tells her, when life is less busy. That’s when she begins to conspire with her friends, her husband’s boss, his counselors, the children, and even his family to trick him into going on the trip. A few years ago an LDS commercial spot showed a family pushing their father into a camper, but it isn’t as easy as that. Michaela’s scheme is foiled when the twins come down with chickenpox and her mother has another, more severe stroke.
Eventually Michaela’s plans work out, only the trip isn’t the romantic trip she had envisioned. Ben, angry and uncooperative, spends hours on the phone with someone back in Salt Lake. The couple barely start to communicate with each other when a violent storm leaves them alone, without supplies or shelter on a small island, struggling to survive. All means of communication beyond the island are gone, leaving Michaela and Ben with no one to talk to but each other. Alone they are forced to examine their marriage and discover whether it is worth saving.
I was disappointed here, I admit, when Michaela-after months of agonizing over her marriage and having just barely escaped death–throws a temper tantrum worthy of one of her eighteen-month-old twins, and Ben’s behavior isn’t much better. However, this section is also one of most crucial because it is the point where Michaela and Ben finally let each other know which aspects of their marriage are not meeting their needs. It’s where they admit they each have dreams and expectations in life that the other is unconsciously holding the other back from achieving.
Sister Bell’s family scenes ring true, probably because of her own experience as a mother of four, being a Bishop’s wife, an aerobics instructor, and her calling as missionary specialist in her ward.
The story’s conclusion is predictable and with the quick resolution of her friends’ problems, perhaps a bit too perfect, but the ending isn’t really the important part of the book.
It’s the journey that matters. It’s the marriage begun in the right way and in the right place, glittering with promise, then stagnating to dreary emptiness in spite of a good man and a good woman who are trying to do those things they believe are right, but sacrificing their relationship along the way. Here is a woman who isn’t willing to let her marriage die, who fights to maintain the covenants and promises she meant with all her heart when she made them. Told from Michaela’s point of view, the story is also a journey of discovery into her own faith and motivations, providing readers with ample opportunity to take a closer look at their own marriages and priorities.
Many LDS books come in a choice of formats, and since I don’t have as much time to read as I would like, I often listen to tapes while commuting to and from work. One recent week I ignored rude drivers, waited patiently through long construction delays, and thoroughly enjoyed my commute, listening to Michele Ashman Bell’s Written in the Stars. It was an enjoyable, thought-provoking experience, one I would recommend to either readers or listeners. Michele Ashman Bell is definitely one of the rising authors of the LDS romance genre.