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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

LDS Women Are Incredible [Novelists]!

by Theric Jepson:


This year it's #GamerGate; last year it was Ohio football players. Although most of the reliable numbers say that women are doing much better on most hard measures, culturally, here in the U.S., a lot of men are still ******s. And we can't look at men threatening to kill women who wear pants to Church and claim that we as Latter-day Saints are untouched by this ugly aspect of our culture. Alas, our sad experience matches Joseph Smith's: it appears to be "the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority . . . [to] exercise unrighteous dominion." And let's be honest: we men hold a substantial percentage of the Church's power, nice little bromides notwithstanding. The problem of course is that it can be difficult to really understand what it's like to be a woman in the Church when you are, in fact, a man in the Church. But! As science proves (literally, Science), reading fiction can increase our empathy, help us understand others, make us better people. (I'm stretching the findings a bit now, but an increase in empathy fits my definition of "better people" pretty well).

And so, to increase the Modern Mormon Man's performance as a decent human being, I present some fiction. Three novels written by two LDS women that can increase our understanding of their lives and those circumstances unique to them and separate from us.

Paso Doble and We Were Gods by Moriah Jovan

Moriah may now and then claim to be nothing more than a bawdy romance novelist, but those of us who've read her know better. With her latest pair of books, she explores the adult lives of twins Victoria and Étienne. The first novel deals with the sister, the second with the brother. But it's equally true that this is a pair of books about how women can get lost in the cultural prescriptions placed upon Latter-day Saints---the first novel about a single woman past her twenties, the second about her sister-in-law who married young.

Both books feature typical Jovanian heroes who take up as much space as Greek gods. Each character is bigger and better and broader than the last, and their clashes are epic.

Victoria, the first novel's protagonist, is brash and thoughtless and no longer has any expectation of marrying. She's too old and has too much personality. Her romantic conflicts within the Church lead indirectly to her being ostracized from the Church when she begins dating a celebrity "manslut." Victoria's extended virginity (and the white-knuckled grip with which she holds onto to it) lead to some of the most educational passages about female sexuality I've read---and her thinking about her role as a Mormon woman are similarly enlightening.

Meanwhile, in We Were Gods, Tess struggles with maintaining aspects of herself that were once (and remain) fundamental to her identity---while they are being barraged by her responsibilities as wife and mother. Parts of Tess were painfully personal to read, as I kept seeing my wife in her and being buffeted with guilt. I don't know if, towards the end, Tess's divergence from the Jepson was more disappointment or relief. At any rate, if you are married and at times get glimpses of the inadvertent harm spouses inflict on each other, you might find some catharsis in this novel. Also: lots of sex. Keep this one from your precocious second-grader.

The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

I put this novel second, even though it will shortly be everywhere, because it doesn't come out until December and so you might as well read some Jovan while you wait. Mette's book is being pushed heavily by her publisher with a large marketing campaign ($100,000!) a large signing tour (15 cities!), etc. This is the book we can all hope will finally replace Under the Banner of Heaven and The 19th Wife in the public consciousness when they think about Mormons. But that also means you should be prepared to talk about it.

In a recent interview, Mette says "I think the biggest misconception now is that Mormon women are oppressed, forced to stay home and have big families, and that we are submissive and rather boring as a group. So that’s why I created Linda Wallheim. I wanted to make a “regular” Mormon woman the heroine of the story and show the ways that so many of the Mormon women I know are smart, savvy, and creative, and exercise all kinds of power in ways that are traditional and that may be overlooked but are definitely real." Which I find fascinating because, as you may have guessed from my intro, I found this book provided me insights in the ways Mormon women lack power. Although she accomplishes much over ~340 pages, Linda spends much of the novel utterly invisible to the men as she investigates the disappearance of a woman in her ward . . . and eventually uncovers murder and crimes more heinous.

Linda Wallheim has traits you'll recognize and acts in ways that feel familiar. She's the reliable woman in your ward who's not old yet but has passed through the bulk of middle age. The woman who knows what needs to be done. The woman we talk about when we say the women really run a ward. You know Linda. Or you think you do. Because it's what's going on inside her head that might surprise---the reasons she speaks when she speaks and pauses when she pauses. She's human and imperfect and strong and curious and both safe and dangerous and as complex as any good work of literature's protagonist should be. As soon as I finish writing my posts about the novel for A Motley Vision, I mean to press this novel on my wife and ask her to read it, to help me better triangulate my empathy.

The Bishop's Wife is a slow burn of a mystery novel that compares well to Sue Grafton and other top writers in the genre. And on top of that, it provides a glimpse into what Publishers Weekly calls "a world most will find as unfamiliar as a foreign country." Including, perhaps, us Modern Mormon Men.

We owe it to ourselves to find out.

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Theric Jepson writes about Mormon literature at A Motley Vision and other stuff at Thutopia. He co-edited Monsters & Mormons, recently finished his debut novel Byuck and can be blamed for other acts of wickedness as well. He lives in El Cerrito, California, with his wife.

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