After reading Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star, with its unique, true-to-life mix of messed-up faith characters and non, minister-heroine, earthy love scenes, the wonder of its ability to posit a faith-based romance with an atheist hero, a novel where sexuality, love, faith, romance, community, goodness and integrity don’t come within the strait-jacket of inspirational romance tropes … well, I really wanted to read an inspirational romance and consider my response to it. Karen Kirst’s The Engagement Charade fit the bill, especially because I’ve loved her books in the past and I’d be inclined to do so again. And, I did … mildly (it isn’t her best). However, it also solidified why the either-or, evangelical-Christianity-based romance narrative brings me out of reader-pleasure-zone to render me hyper-conscious of its flaws.
First, to set the scene: in late nineteenth-century fictional Gatlinburg Tennessee, our hero, Plum Café owner Alexander Copeland broods in his office, tormented by memories of a fire that killed his wife and son back home in Texas. Meanwhile, widowed, pregnant heroine Ellie Jameson cooks and runs his business.
Like Alexander, Ellie is not native to the town. She hails from Kentucky and arrived with her husband and in-laws only to lose Nolan, her husband, shortly thereafter. At present, she continues to live with her in-laws, sister- and brother-in-law and it is her husband’s family that brings about the “engagement charade”. Ellie’s husband’s family never accepted her, treat her badly and, when they find out she’s pregnant, plan on keeping her isolated and friendless while they dominate her child’s life. Ellie’s plight and pluck bring Alexander out of self-recrimination and isolation. Despite his deep mourning, Alexander is a good man and he can’t NOT help Ellie. After a few nasty run-ins with the Jamesons, Alexander, in a moment of protective obliviousness to his own pain, declares that they must leave Ellie be because she is his fiancée. The charade begins and allows Ellie and Alexander, under its “pretend” auspices, to grow closer.
My feeling about this inspirational romance is of stunted potential. Kirst is a solid writer who infuses her characters with some interesting complexity and then never sees it through to where it might lead. Ellie, for example, starts out mouthy and funny: she plagues Alexander until he emerges from his self-imposed office exile and begins to take part in town life and show concern for his employees. As Ellie’s Operation Alexander succeeds and their antagonistic banter diminishes, so does the light of their complex personalities. Because they are subject to the inspirational come-to-Jesus-and-church conventions, they are leached of what makes them interesting in the first place.
Alexander begins to admire Ellie’s virtues as he makes his spiritual and emotional way to joining with life and Ellie. Alexander, in turn, is a man tormented by guilt (over his wife’s and son’s deaths) and his healing from this is an admirable theme. But it never quite “goes anywhere”: in other words, Alexander feels guilty and his internal musings never take him beyond. His narrative presence only harps on his guilt: he doesn’t examine it, or reconsider it, or listen to anyone who advises him otherwise. It just becomes a great big unmoving narrative barrier without any development.
I am not of the opinion that narrative conventions, or tropes, are literary death-knells. Indeed, if I did then I wouldn’t be reading and writing about romance, would I? Nor would I be able to recognize, let’s say, the genius of a sonnet, whether by Shakespeare, or one of my favourites, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Nevertheless, I think that convention, trope, form, whatever strictures may be the framework for a writer’s expression, may serve as expansive, or limiting. In the case of so much inspirational romance, they are the latter. In the end, there were moments when I was moved by Ellie and Alexander, but too many where I was impatient with the novel’s inability to brave the narrative and character wilderness. Karen Kirst’s The Engagement Charade offers “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Karen Kirst’s The Engagement Charade was published by Harlequin Books. It was released on July 4th, 2017, and may be found at your preferred vendor. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.