I don’t typically read romance novels, but as a Catholic wife and mother of teenage daughters, I was interested to see what this genre could be when written through a faith-based lens. A few months ago, I read Stay with Me by Carolyn Astfalk.
I really enjoyed the opening of this book because it was sweet and simple and humorous, taking place in a grocery store when Rebecca, a young lady babysitting her niece and nephew, runs into Chris for the first time. The realistic setting worked well and made the characters relatable. In fact, the setting was woven under the entire plotline, and it was clear that the author loved Shenandoah National Park based on its prominence in the story.
The descriptions of the characters’ time spent in Shenandoah particularly endeared me to the story because I write in the contemporary realistic fiction category, and introducing readers to the realistic parts of a setting, particularly ones that have either historical or natural significance, is something I do intentionally. Even if I haven’t traveled to a certain location, I want it to be real, so with the help of the internet – Google Maps in particular – I love getting to know a place as well as possible as I weave it into the setting of a novel.
This may be based on stereotypes, but it’s my understanding that many people who want to read a Christian romance novel are looking for the exact opposite of what the typical secular romance contains. I’ve seen the word “clean” used in descriptions of romance novels so that readers understand that they won’t be seeing sinful sexual behaviors being described in graphic detail or glorified as good, normal, or beautiful. However, in order to be realistic while also telling a story, there must be struggle. Astfalk does this in her novel. She avoids graphic details, but her characters do make mistakes, and then they learn from those mistakes. This is what I appreciate most in this book – the realistic acknowledgment that humans can be tempted, sometimes fall, but can be redeemed afterward.
The relationship of the priest character’s relationship to both Rebecca and Chris was slowly revealed and helped the reader to understand some of Rebecca’s past. I appreciated his role as mentor and the sound advice he gave while not coming across as a preachy character inserted for that purpose. His role was realistic.
Rebecca’s sister, Abby, provided comic relief, in my opinion – and she did it well. I read some reviews on Amazon in which she was called ‘inappropriate’ because she had no filter – and that’s true, but it doesn’t mean she should have been left out of the story, because she fulfilled her role as a character well, in my opinion. Because of her love for and support of her sister, you couldn’t help but enjoy her even when she made crass comments. Her inclusion gave variety to the story.
Rebecca's father played the role of antagonist. Some of his behaviors seemed a little unbelievable, but then, I haven't dealt with a family member who has an open hostility to my faith, so maybe some can truly be that cruel and ignorant. I would have liked to see a little more insight into their relationship, maybe showing more of the past or something that would have developed her father further.
I appreciated this novel as a light fictional story that actually covered some deep moral theology. As I have been revising Book Two in the Chalice series – Enkindle in Me, covering the moral ground of presenting sexual temptation and sin realistically in fiction has been a focus of mine. Ignoring the fact that temptation exists isn’t realistic (nor does it make for an interesting plot), and I love a protagonist who struggles with challenging decisions that eventually lead to his triumph in the end. The fine line of wanting a reader to recognize and be uncomfortable with sin while not giving scandal – that is a real challenge for a Christian fiction writer. I don’t want a reader scandalized, but I do want them to squirm a little at situations which they should see as wrong.
Finally, this was a book that was pretty easy to keep reading – always a plus when a story keeps you engaged enough that you want to pick it back up again so you can find out what will happen next. It left me interested to read the next book and get a closer look at some of the other characters.