Forgiven by Maureen Sutlive Taylor

Forgiven—Living a nightmare with the lights on is the story of Katie, a twenty-something woman in counseling for an anxiety disorder, who learns about forgiveness as she navigates between two love interests: Chris, her therapist, and Scott, a man with secrets that could threaten her life. Her parents died when she was twelve, but she was taken in by her loving grandmother. At that time, a bully (Laura Anne) tells Katie she will have problems all her life because she’s an orphan and her grandmother “is a religious freak so you’re in for double trouble.”

I was drawn to this book by its intriguing subtitle and Tybee Island setting, wanting to escape in an easy summer romance, hoping to eavesdrop on Katie’s counseling sessions to gain wisdom about forgiveness. I wasn’t totally disappointed. The ending is suspenseful.  There are some words of wisdom– “(when you pray) you got to ask for learning and then learn to accept what you’re being taught”—and some interesting island information such as what items are in a hurricane preparation bucket and fun facts about Tybee’s Catholic Church.

But there are weaknesses.

The point-of-view switches randomly.  A given word, for example sand, may be repeated three, four, even six times within one paragraph. There is an abundance of trite expressions and an annoying amount of analogies to fictional and famous people: “…a mocking voice, like that of the wicked witch of the east.” “…an evil glare that smacked of Charles Manson.” “… like Scarlet O’Hara, she would think about that tomorrow.” Even Monica Lewinsky is among those mentioned.

There are insertions of off-topic information as when the narrator explains deer proliferation during a funeral scene, and when Katie, in “shock, despair, and tremendous activity,” complains about a gift of a wireless electronic reader versus a book to hold in her hand.  Even the visual copy is distracting: justified margins; occasional capitalization of “A” midsentence, insertion of famous quotes before some chapters but not others, and the use of the author’s educational initials after her name.

Do the strengths and weaknesses balance themselves enough to recommend the book? That depends on how much the reader is affected by the romance, narrator, and Catholic components.

The romance doesn’t ring true for me. There is little about Katie that I like, admire, or wish to emulate. Anxiety disorder aside, she is immature, selfish, and sometimes mean.  She calls Elizabeth “my dearest and bestest friend.” As an adult she bullies Laura Anne at a dress shop then “….laughed, not even being careful that someone might hear.” When Chris explains his decision she responds, “Oh, grow up.” Though anyone would expect a preteen who loses both parents to have issues, Katie’s continuing high level of anxiety after ten plus years seems disproportionate to a few nasty comments made by a bully, especially since she was supported by several loving adults.

Chris, on the other hand, is likeable, but lacking as a believable hero. He continues to see Katie professionally though he is attracted to her. He makes coffee at the end of her sessions so they can chit-chat.  While making his decision to drop her as a client, he focuses on his attraction to her and not on the emotional consequences for her. And when she won’t evacuate the island he prepares to leave without her (smart, but not heroic).

The unnamed narrator creates problems as well. The narrative voice begins as sophisticated:

There is no parallel universe, although the idea is grand. There is no avatar substitute when living grows too hard. There is no treatment for the realities of life that crash into the world like runaway trains on crack…

but quickly adopts an urban tone:

(She was a) wise and wonderful woman who had the power to verbally pop Katie upside the head and get away with it.

The narrator’s comments (paraphrased in the following examples) are sexist (only men remember golf scores) and disparaging (brides act like entitled princesses, demanding special treatment on their day; weddings are a rat race of ceremony, gifts and guests). The narrator is inconsistent (“He accepted the coffee but passed on the cake… and took a bite of his cake.”) and inaccurate (Laura Anne seems narcissistic, rare for a fourteen year old.)

I was also disappointed to learn nothing new about forgiveness. Katie is told that Christians need to forgive because Jesus has forgiven us, but not told how to forgive. I’m not even sure who the author thinks needs forgiveness—Scott? Laura Anne? Chris? Everyone? No one? Does the title have a Protestant connotation—if you’re born again, all your sins are forgiven? Or does it take into account that Catholics believe confessing and penance are required as well?

I do not believe this story qualifies as Catholic fiction. First, there is definite Protestant presence: “falls to her knees convicted,” “altar call,” “Saviour’s Heart,” and the statement “all people who repent and turn to the Lord would be forgiven.” Catholics don’t have altar calls or talk of being convicted, and Catholics would use the name Sacred Heart.

Second, the Catholic characters don’t talk or act like Catholics. For example, Katie says:

“Growing up I read lots of books on men and women dedicated to God. I guess some people loved all that suffering and sacrifice, but I wouldn’t ever start believing in Jesus after reading those biographies.”

Catholics would say they read the lives of the saints and martyrs, not biographies. Most would say the stories inspired them because of the saints’ loyalty to Jesus. And because the lives of the saints would be such a small part of their overall religious experience, Catholics would never say it kept them from believing in Christ.

The narrator misunderstands Catholicism as well. When Catherine prays the rosary, “(she stopped) between each decade, she talked to God. She begged the Blessed Mother for intercession; she confessed her transgressions.” Praying the rosary is talking to God as well as to Mary, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is where Catholics confess their sins. When the narrator introduces the priest, he says Kevin Brennan; for a Catholic, the title Father is part of the name.

A Catholic would capitalize the M in Mass, and question the following analogy: “The church had black ceiling fans the color of a witch’s cauldron.” There isn’t even a scene where a priest shows Katie a Catholic approach to forgiveness.

Lastly, Catholic fiction would not include the ridiculous behavior of Father John. When he offers Katie a job, he says, “(a teacher is leaving) … It’s a blessing in disguise as she’s old as dirt and has the engaging powers of a dead person.”  When Katie accepts, “(he) hopped up and hugged Katie, spun her around and hugged Dolly and bent over Beau to ruffle his head feathers”. (Beau is a dog.)  And because he believes Christmas is spiritual, “teachers and administrators were forbidden to exchange gifts.”

This author has talent and with professional editing this story could read like a finished product instead of a promising first draft. Well-written or not, however, if the flawed portrayal of Catholicism was not corrected, I could not recommend it.


What do you think?