Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Atlas of Love

Atlas of Love, by Laurie Frankel

Jenny at Teach Your Baby to Read did a PNW authors festival recently, and asked me if I'd read Atlas of Love (the link is to her excellent review).  I'd never heard of it, but the plot intrigued me and I promptly ILLed it.

We have three grad students in literature who are best friends as they study and teach at a university in Seattle.  When Jill becomes unexpectedly pregnant and her much-younger boyfriend disappears, the three women decide to move in together, make a family, and raise a baby while earning their Ph.D's.

I really enjoyed about 75% of this book.  There was lots of good writing about the nature of love and family.  I got attached to several of the characters, the plot kept me hanging on, I felt for the narrator--I could hardly put it down.  Some bits were very funny and yet real at the same time. Overall, the book is pretty great.

(The rest of my review here is a little ranty and over-long.  You may skip this bit: )

But.  One of the three friends, Katie, is billed as a Mormon, and there is quite a lot about her character that really did not convince me.  Katie is a Mormon feminist academic (Victorianist, woo)--fine.  I have known lots of those; in fact I've been one.  Katie goes on lots of dates with LDS guys and would quite like to get married--fine.  She is a returned missionary who served in Guatemala--excellent.  (The bit where she gets diagnosed with Guatemalan parasites is one of my favorite parts of the book.)

Most of Katie's behavior, though, is very strange.  This is all supposed to be behavior-that-is-strange-to-outsiders-but-makes-sense-to-Mormons, but if I knew a real-life woman like Katie, I would think she was unhinged.   She is desperate to get married, and spends a lot of the book figuring things out that most people figure out at about 19--such as that asking a non-LDS person to convert just for you is a Super-Bad Idea and that desperation to get married is a good reason to not do it.  Most of the Mormon feminist academics I've known were not desperate to get married and a bit wary about the whole thing, since it's kind of a big commitment and all. 

For some reason it's hard for Katie to find an LDS guy who can deal with the fact that she's an academic who reads books, which is kind of mysterious to me as they are not a rare breed.  She does find a boy--and gets engaged after a week and starts planning a wedding for a month away.  Now some people do get engaged quickly, but a week is crazy.  Some people plan a fast wedding, but a month--after knowing the guy for a week--is really super-crazy.  (She's right that Mormons are geniuses at throwing great weddings on short notice.  But the timing has been exaggerated to the point of insanity.)

Most bizarre of all, Katie and her fiance decide to get married in a backyard so that all their close friends can attend.  Now the plot of the novel requires that all the characters treat each other like family and therefore the author wants them all at the wedding, but this is jaw-droppingly, insanely unrealistic.  Katie just tosses it off as no big deal--"Oh, we decided to get married in the backyard so you can all come and we won't have to go to Utah to the temple, and squee, I'm getting married for time and all eternity!"  Uh, no you're not, Katie, and you would know that if you were a real person.  Also, there's a temple in Seattle--there has been for 30+ years now.  Also, what?  It would take a long time to explain all the things that are wrong with this scenario, but I've run out of energy and I'm sure you've run out of patience.

I suspect that the author thought she knew more about Mormons than she actually did.  But the REST of the book is pretty good, so don't let that stop you from reading and enjoying it as long as you remember that Katie is not a real person.


Jenny/Teachingmybabytoread said...

That's exactly what I wanted to know!!!!

The backyard wedding didn't make any sense to me either, because my SIL was a bridesmaid in a LDS wedding but it was really more of a pictures thing. She wasn't actually allowed to attend the real wedding because she wasn't LDS. So why would Kate insist on having a backyard wedding so her nonMormon friends could be there? Wouldn't that be a blessing ceremony or something?

The part about books and readership did seem believable to me though. But that's because I've seen that type of behavior in fundamentalist Christian circles. Sometimes you'll find a church where the culture just isn't that into academics. So I just figured Kate was in a ward where the people she hung out with were more interested in going to picnics than libraries.

But would you agree that Kate was really the spiritual soul of the whole book? She was the only character who had her eye on a bigger picture the entire time.

Jean said...

Yes, Katie could have a ring ceremony, which is common when two people are getting married in the temple and their family members (parents, etc.) can't attend and aren't happy about it. It can't mimic a real wedding--no vows--but the temple ceremony does not include rings so you can have a ring-trading ceremony that usually makes most people happy.

Your SIL may not have noticed that many Mormons didn't attend the wedding either. Temple weddings are *small*--usually only with family and very close friends, and even then you have to be an adult Mormon who has been through the temple to go at all. Younger siblings and bridesmaids *rarely* attend sealings, and it's not even uncommon for one or more parents not to be able to attend. Mormons consider the covenants made with God to be more important than who else is there.

It's not so much that no one ever chooses to get married civilly for reasons like wanting friends to be there--that does happen, though usually not with two RMs who are faithful adults, it would be considered a very immature and superficial thing to do--it's more that it was treated as an easy, casual decision and the *very* heavy cultural and religious weight of that decision was ignored. Katie's parents, siblings, and friends are all freaking out, not to mention the guy's family. The bishop had a serious talk with her. The couple agonized tearfully over such a decision--the author doesn't seem to realize what would happen, that it's a huge deal.

One way that Mormons really differ from fundamentalists is that everyone is encouraged to get as much education as possible--Mormons actually reverse the usual statistical trend where higher education correlates with less religion. So while, sure, there are LDS guys who aren't into booky girls, guys who love booky girls aren't exactly rare. Heck, even I found one.

I don't know about Katie being the spiritual soul of the book. She was so often portrayed as kind of cold. (Indeed, described outright as cold, though that was another spot that I thought was unrealistically executed. Anyone could have been more graceful than that.) She was angry a lot. She was the only one who thought about the bigger picture, you're right, but sometimes that was portrayed as, well, cold.

I gave it to a friend of mine who I knew would enjoy it, and she did love it--but since she's an RM herself she agreed with me about the Katie problem. :)

Jenny/Teachingmybabytoread said...