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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review: A Slow Burn by Mary DeMuth

My Review

I finished my read of A Slow Burn a while back but hesitated to write the review then because so much was going on in my mind about what I had read, and I wanted to take time to digest what I had read before writing my review. I like to be honest in my reviews, but I also like to be fair, carefully balancing what worked for me and what didn't.

I met Mary DeMuth at the Write-to-Publish Conference in June 2009 at Wheaton College and enjoyed her talks about writing redemptive fiction. Knowing her philosophy better, I finished Daisy Chain, which left me hanging and not quite satisfied with the redemptive message, and decided to read A Slow Burn as well, wanting to know how she was going to lead the story forward and introduce redemption and optimism to an otherwise depressing set of scenarios.

First, let me talk about the things I liked. Mary's writing is indeed masterful, and her prose is a treat to savor. Her writing is a wonderful blend of folksy local color, poetry, and insights into human character. (Think To Kill a Mockingbird if you've read it.) Her dialogue adds life to characters in a way I've rarely seen achieved so successfully in Christian fiction. DeMuth also deftly characterizes a woman who lacks a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, we see a realistic look at pain, drug abuse, suffering, heartache, self-deception, selfishness, and depravity—all without Christ. Thankfully, readers get a dose of the light of Jesus Christ, shining on all this darkness, through the character Hixon, who continues to woo Emory even though she keeps pushing him away and giving him every reason to give up on her. I didn't miss the obvious picture of how God woos us in spite of how we often push Him away. Yet He is determined, even stubborn, to win our hearts and never gives up, regardless of how we sometimes spit in His face. Sometimes I felt angry with Emory because of her cruelty toward Hixon. He has every right to give up on her, but he refuses to do so. What a beautiful picture of how God pursues us!

Unfortunately, though the novel impressed me in many ways, it also disappointed me on several levels. The mystery/suspense aspect of Daisy's death completely loses momentum in A Slow Burn. As a suspense novelist, I was expecting a smattering of clues about who the killer could be to lead readers along; Daisy Chain seemed much stronger in this regard. In A Slow Burn, the investigation appears to be completely forgotten as we read about the sometimes-depressing and never-sugar-coated path of Emory's struggles. Therefore, much of the story seemed lacking in plot and to center mostly on relationships and Emory's struggles with little action. Therefore, the pace was slow.
I also found the story to lean too heavily on the darkness and realism scale for me, and the flickering hope in the ending pages seemed too feeble to outshine a mostly depressing story. Somehow Emory makes a change, but this transformation seems incomplete. Certainly we see the hope of Christ pictured in Hixon, but when does Emory call out to Jesus Himself, asking Him to forgive her sins and to be her personal Savior? Perhaps it's in there, but I missed it. Mary chose not to be overt about Emory's conversion. The cause of her transformation seems more implied than overt. I can see the wisdom in this technique, yet after so much darkness in the story, I personally would have preferred to see the light and truth of Christ shine more brightly. Perhaps the shining is being reserved for book three in the trilogy.

I was also disappointed by Jed's lack of spiritual growth since the first novel. He still seems like a bitter, sulky adolescent. Of course, his behavior is understandable given what he's been through, but when is he going to experience the joy of his faith, forgive his dad, and move on in his walk? In the end he does at least ask Hixon to pray for the situation, which shows at least a good sign that his faith may be strengthening, but I would have liked to see more of a transformation in his character since the first book.

Finally, as in Daisy Chain, the novel seemed to lack a clear spiritual leader to show a clear path through the misery. Hap, Jed's preacher dad, only sinks from bad to worse and, I must confess, seems like a stereotype. Rather like the pastor in The Poisonwood Bible. Not much spiritual guidance there. Muriel, the only person beyond Hixon who seems to have any spiritual answers, is oddly Catholic and even observes last rites before her death. She seems to be the true spiritual pillar in this novel, but why a Catholic? (I love Catholics, by the way, but it saddens me to see so many fail to turn from their works-based belief system to the message of faith and grace alone.) Hixon, the only other spiritual pillar in the book, is certainly a picture of God's love in action. But when Jed communicates his frustration with his situation, Hixon is unable to offer any biblical solutions for Jed's problems. Why is that? At one point, Hixon even wishes he was Catholic like Muriel so he could pray better. In the end, I was dissatisfied by the novel's theological message and, again, would have liked to see someone with biblical answers for these depressing circumstances.

The writing alone makes this novel a literary gem that shines more brightly than many other novels in the Christian market. But because of a number of issues, I finished the novel feeling entertained by the writing and characters but somewhat dumbfounded by the overall message. I hesitated to post this review because I don't want to be seen as overly critical. I truly enjoyed reading this novel, and I realize that it is only fiction. I wish Mary the best as she finishes the trilogy.

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