When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:
“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.” If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here.
To a degree, I sympathize with Hansen. I assume that what happened was this: she opened the book, read a few pages, and then realized it was beyond her threshold for sexuality and language. She did not feel comfortable continuing with the read. What she should have done at that point was to say so and pass it on to somebody else on the Whitney committee who was more comfortable with sexuality and language in a story, so that the story (which was legitimately nominated by five readers, as per award-contest rules) could be reviewed fairly and weighed with the other nominees. If the Whitney Committee would like to exclude certain entries based on content, I believe that they should state this in their rules, and inform the author of the nominated work that this was the reason for exclusion.
I came to know about this story because I was given a similar, sort of strangely preachy, review by Hansen for my first novel, Lightning Tree. In addition, she got names wrong and events in my story mixed up. As a very new author I really was not sure what to make of it. I can handle criticism. In fact, I know that my first book had problems. But it was rather frustrating, to feel like my critic hadn’t bothered to read my story carefully. And the implication in her review that, because my characters’ level of faith and dependence upon the Lord wasn’t up to her own particular standards, it wasn’t a well-written book, seemed rather strange and yes, unprofessional. For her full review of my novel Lightning Tree you can click here.
This experience lead me to purchase and read Jovan’s book. I want to give it a review that people in the LDS arts world can trust to be accurate, from the perspective of someone who not only enjoys reading and reviewing LDS literature, but has read the entire work carefully, with a mind to look past personal preferences and preachiness.
SO, I’ll start off in my customary manner. Here are the difficulties I had with Magdalene:
It got a bit frenetic, fast-paced and jam-packed with events and references to previous events and people off-script at times. I followed most of the story pretty well, but there were moments that felt jarringly too-full-of-stuff and it took me out of the narrative.
I found the blend of blatant erotic romance and LDS-themed fiction confusing, amusing, disturbing and refreshing. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone under eighteen years of age, to anyone who is addicted to romance novels, or to those who are easily wounded by sexual slang.
That leads me to my biggest problem with this story. I am not usually a consumer of erotic romance, and so I don’t know how writers usually achieve the portrayal of detailed sexual encounters. But I found myself, in reading these scenes (yes, I read them entirely, I did not skip pages) wondering how such detail in sexuality could be achieved without use of words that are either clinical or slang. I can see why using the real words for body parts wouldn’t work at all, because we’d go from love story to obstetrician’s office. But the slang is just as bad–we go from love story to locker room. Is there any solution for this? I don’t know. So I don’t know that I can blame the author for it.
Magdalene is a story with entertaining, larger-than-life characters. The plot is riveting and, in the end, quite satisfying. Normally I struggle with this sort of cinematic storytelling. The Evolution of Thomas Hall, nominee for the 2011 General Fiction award in the Whitneys, for instance, left me sort of disappointed and, “eh?” in the end. It seemed sort of like big talk and, in the end, not much story. Magdalene, however, earned its dramatic telling. It was colorful and sweeping and wonderfully twisty and surprising until the very end. The writer kept all her promises. As a reader, I greatly appreciate it.
Hansen accused Jovan of sloppy, disjointed writing and poor research. As a very conscientious researcher myself, I had a distinct sense, in reading Magdalene, of the volume of time and effort the author put into getting details straight on many topics: business, finance, the steel industry, degenerative illnesses and, certainly, policies of the LDS church. Ms. Jovan makes no apology for the LDS-apologist elements in her story. In fact, another review stated this:
“I was hesitant to read the story because most Mormon-involved books involve a lot of apologetics. This one does, though it’s cleverly incorporated and doesn’t get heavy handed until about 70% of the way through.”
Because I took the trouble to read the entire work, I also noticed the accuracy and advocacy apparent in these details that were so carefully correct on a range of LDS topics, from priesthood leadership and responsibilities to church disciplinary counsels, to LDS temple garments, and much more.
Unlike Hansen, I have always loved stories that delve into the imperfect testimonies of real, LDS people; the doubts and fears and the struggle with conflict. I love the different shades of testimony Jovan paints in her various characters. I love her portrayal of how trauma has effects on testimony. And I will admit this”¦ this article, posted recently on Jovan’s blog, about wrong assumptions in our culture of sexuality and sexual knowledge, applies to me. Because of various events and circumstances in my life, I really struggle with this. I’m only writing about it here because I feel obliged to come forward as a case-in-point, and what that other LDS author she referred to in her blog post wrote about “we all know how it’s done” hurts me. It is a message that has hurt me in the past as I’ve tried, hard, to seek out answers and have been told I just need to figure things out on my own and be patient. And it continues to hurt me. What Moriah Jovan wrote in her story (explicit though it was, and in spite of what I felt about locker rooms) actually sort of helped me. It portrayed a healthy relationship, with sexuality as a source of joy, not shame, and one of the more detailed, explicit scenes actually kind of helped me through a sort of breakthrough. I’m not going to start reading explicit romance on a regular basis, but I truly believe my choice to pick up this book at this time in my life was inspired.
I was fascinated by the unfolding romantic relationship between the main characters. Mostly, I was fascinated by how the author chose to tell it. Before they were married, Jovan kept it fairly clean, though still honest; there were some frank descriptions of things that would never be found inside something sitting on Deseret Book’s shelves, but they were all things you really would notice in even the chastest of LDS courtships. The real erotica only started after the marriage. I felt like that was the author’s way of respecting LDS convenants.
It is impossible to miss the fondness this author has for Mormons, Mormonism, and even the Mormon gospel. Her characters are forever explaining to each other aspects of the gospel–describing how it’s affected their lives, the pain and joy it has brought. Without exception, the failures in the story are never because of God or gospel, but because of people and their imperfections.
I loved one scene in particular. After being unfairly excommunicated, a man walks into his library and, in a fit of rage and disappointment and helplessness, he smashes all the glass cases of his entire library of LDS literature. He tries to light all the books on fire, but they don’t burn. I feel like this story’s biggest message is this: we are all broken vessels. As sincere servants of God, we are filled with power–something truly perfect, something hugely important–but we, ourselves, often break and then cannot contain in true measure the thing we’ve been given.
In the end, I am not sure how I feel about the blend of erotica and LDS fiction. It confuses me a lot, to be honest. But that might be because (as I stated earlier) this is an issue I have in my own life. I wouldn’t recommend Magdalene to unmarried LDS persons, but for those who have passed through the rite-of-passage that allows sexuality to be an aspect of their relationships, I would probably say that, like anything else of a sexual nature between couples, it’s not for me, or for anyone, to judge what others do (or read) to strengthen their marriage and examine and work through and improve their own experiences.
One thing I can state categorically however. Regardless of your preferences as to genre and content, it is impossible to miss the quality of Jovan’s writing. She is clever, coherent, furiously fast-paced and exciting. She uses just the right amount of detail, writes characters that are somehow both incredibly improbable and extremely relatable, and overall hooks a reader and keeps her driven through to the very end.