I knew I needed to download Ryan Rapier’s debut novel The Reluctant Blogger when I read his review of my book, Mile 21. It was a review that I really appreciated, because… well. His book is about the same thing. The protagonist suddenly loses an eternal spouse. The protagonist is not coping well and has to be pushed into coping by loved ones/professionals/ecclesiastical leaders.
His review meant a lot because I knew it came from a place I respected. Ryan Rapier had goals similar to mine in writing his story, and so comparing how we both did at accomplishing those goals–bringing up complex doctrinal issues, how they mix with and influence feelings and coping in the wake of tragedy, and the way friends, family, and ward members can add to or lift burdens of those grieving–has been awesome.
I finished The Reluctant Blogger yesterday night. In fact, stayed up until one in the morning, which I don’t often do, but my husband was next to me in bed feverishly sketching out plans for our attached greenhouse (am I allowed to put links to my blog in here??) and I was caught up in the story.
The loneliness a person feels in LDS culture after being removed of spouse, with hazy ideas as to what the future might hold for him, is deep and consuming. Confusing. I know it because I went through it in the form of a messy and frightening, and very public divorce. I was blessed because I ended up two years later with an amazing guy, and with a sealing cancellation signed by the First Presidency. I had the ability to be sealed again to someone. But how many aren’t so lucky? The thought has haunted me. What if the First Presidency had said no to me? What if my life had gone another direction, and I had been expected to live 60 more years sanctified by sacrifice and loneliness, instead of being loved by someone and having the large, happy family I had always planned for?
I think writing is often an exploration of the things that crack us and break us and frighten us and confuse us and cause sadness, though we know if we have testimonies of the gospel that they shouldn’t, because God’s plan is eternal happiness. We know all this stuff down here is for our good…etc. But imperfect human minds aren’t always up to the task of peace in the face of deep grieving. I think the biggest plague in this world, the thing that causes the very most pain, is loneliness.
Because we Mormons believe Marriage and Family are the crux of eternal happiness, those relationships affect happiness and emotional stability at a much more salient and deep level. (Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those of other denominations would take issue with that statement.) Being without spouse after a certain age is also something that people in the church have difficulty dealing with. It’s almost like what Phillip Pullman portrays in his series His Dark Materials: every human has a daemon, except for those who’ve had theirs cut away. And people can’t even look at them. It’s too hard. It’s unnatural, like looking at something mutilated… broken… it’s something they fear happening to them above all else, and so they just can’t face the thought it could happen.
I’m going to say I really liked Ryan’s portrayal, though there were a couple of things I struggled with. The most glaring was that I really, passionately disliked the therapist character. That might be because I dislike and distrust all therapists, so, probably partly my own issue. But that character just seemed so arrogant, and shallow. He spent half the time thinking about office furniture. I think it was meant to be funny but it came off as extremely annoying. Also the therapist… the blogging…. I know, I know, it’s the title and central premise of the book. But it felt a little forced and unnecessary. I feel like the story could have been better, less awkwardly conveyed, without the therapist and blog as our channel to the main character. And I have a hard time believing someone would blog entire conversations, completely with facial expressions, gesture, etc.
The other difficulties I had were minor. There weren’t very many, and they were mostly “new writer” awkwardnesses that I’m sure I still commit myself.
As I read, I found something pretty wonderful in Ryan’s writing. He’s not overly dramatic (except for the part where he screamed while in therapy. But maybe people do that. I don’t know. I just can’t picture a pretty staid, responsible, mature 38 year old doing it. Crying, maybe… growling, maybe. Screaming’s pretty extreme.) But other than that, it was all completely believable. He includes just enough detail, just enough delving into the emotions/mind of the main character, and the supporting characters were, I felt, masterfully portrayed as well. I felt especially for Alex, the main character’s 13 year old daughter. How many men can portray grieving-13-year-old-girl to any degree of accuracy? An impressive feat.
I’ll go on to say that, while my story and Ryan’s are similar, the issues he addresses are broader and braver. In addition to being a widower, the protagonist is a father of 3. He’s older–late thirties. Like in my story, his relationship with his parents is complex and not always supportive. In addition, he addresses an issue all us wives think about at times–that of multiple wives in the afterlife. Kind of an ouchy spot. He addresses it well, with a realistic resolution.
And to top that off with more wonderfulness, he addresses the issues of homosexuality and the church. A really wonderful guy “comes out” in the course of the novel & the reader experiences at a very deep, real level, what that means in the context of Mormon Culture. Including the protagonist’s struggles, which include prejudice and fear. If I cried at any point in the book, that was it.
Bottom line, it’s not a perfect book. Of course it’s not. It’s a debut novel. But Rapier’s talent is obvious in spite of new-writer awkwardness. The Reluctant Blogger is definitely worth reading. Rapier is a writer who seems driven to address the “issues on the edge”, things that Mormons worry about but don’t quite understand. Things we struggle with. Things we grieve privately over and sometimes feel judged about.
In other words, things that need to be written about.