Feminism

Redeeming Love review: Introduction

I had a root canal this morning and my copy of Francine River’s Redeeming Love hasn’t arrived yet, so today is just going to serve as an introduction. In case you’ve never heard of the book before I mentioned it as an option for me to review a while ago, here’s the summary from the back:

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep.

Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside.

Then she meets Michael Hosea. A man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything, Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw.

But with her unexpected softening come overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: Her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does … the One who will never let her go.

Seems like a fairly typical Christian historical romance novel, although probably slightly darker than most of the ones I read growing up. In those, women could have abuse in their background, but it was pretty much only ever alluded to in vague ways, and never dealt with it directly. Like in Lori Wick’s The Knight and the Dove — the main character, Megan, suffered abuse and neglect from her mother, but it all happened in “the past” (mostly. I think her mother slaps her once). The book never really knows how to deal with it, expect that she sleepwalks when she’s upset, something most of the characters seem to find adorable for some reason?

I’ve never read Redeeming Love before, but I’ll bet you anything that Francine probably doesn’t know the first thing about trauma, recovery, and the healing process. Notice how we’re already being set up to expect Angel to be “bitter“? I imagine Angel’s recovery will be set in terms of forgiveness and bitterness, which y’all can already guess how well I’ll react to that. Given that Redeeming Love exists in a culture that has fundamental misunderstandings of sex trafficking, there’s also going to be some myths that I’ll have to deconstruct.

Given that we’ll be talking about sex trafficking for the first bit of the book, I have to let you know that I don’t have a solidly formed opinion about this topic. Sex trafficking is clearly evil, and I think this is something we all agree on. However, there are many arguments about how to go about solving this problem, and I don’t think there is any sort of silver bullet or perfect solution.

I will say that conversations about sex trafficking in the American Christian context are muddied with our tendency to see all non-heterosexual-married sex as innately sinful. I also lean in the direction of protecting sex workers while avoiding paternalism and condescension; this means that while I find certain arguments about “sex work can only exist in a misogynistic system that views women’s bodies as consumable commodities” somewhat compelling, I also believe that all bodies and our labor are consumable commodities in a capitalistic system, and if I can consent to selling my labor at a bookstore, what’s the real difference between that and selling my labor from a bed?

I’m still not completely sold either way on whether or not there’s some quality to sex work that makes it wholly and significantly different from other forms of physical or emotional labor, but what I do know is that many sex workers find their work enjoyable and aren’t any more coerced into it than anyone else trying to put food in their mouth and roof over their head by flipping burgers or brewing cappuccinos.

Obviously this is an extremely complicated conversation, with many valid viewpoints and arguments, and I think Redeeming Love will be a good entry point into that discussion since it’s not one we’ve really had on the blog.

***

I’ve pointed you in the direction of Lindsay’s in-depth review already, but I always try to situate these review series in the larger context of how the book’s been received and what it’s meant to people, so I read a few more reviews today. There’s this one by Wife, Mom, Superwoman and another by Mike Duran here, and something popped out to me in those reviews: they both describe Michael Hosea as relentless, and both of them clearly think of this as one of his best traits.

As a Christian I understand the beauty that can be found in God’s grace, and how we can be comforted by its endless depths. I return to Christian theology again and again — despite all my doubts and struggles– because I love how it can articulate a deity of boundless love that crosses all boundaries and boxes. However, it’s interesting to me that so many people think of God as relentless, a word that conveys things like zombies and Jubal Early from Firefly. My conception of God’s love is more like sunlight and moonlight. Always there, always beautiful, but certainly not something that chases me down and drags me, desperately kicking and screaming, back into his house.

Hmm. I think we might end up talking about Christian culture’s violence-centric depictions of God, too.

Many of the 1-star reviews on Goodreads make a lot of good points, but 86% of the ratings are 4 or 5 stars, and almost a hundred thousand people have given it a 5-star rating. Phrases like “I couldn’t possibly do this book justice,” “extraordinary,” and “flawless,” are littered everywhere. Most of the reviews are essentially different wordings of “this book has deeply affected my view of God and romance,” which I find troubling. Fiction and literature are powerful things, but there’s a Twilight-level fervor in these reviews that me wonder about the connection between abusive, controlling, agency-stripping “romances” and how popular they can be.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to launching into this with y’all.

Artwork by Mick Austin
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  • Beroli

    I hope you feel better soon.

    I’m looking forward to this, too.

    • Thanks. I’m mostly just pretty tired– anxiety about the appointment was way worse than the actual procedure, blah. Had strange dreams about Emmet Brown from Back to the Future doing it and mumbling “Great Scott!” the entire time which was just bizarre.

  • Christine Woolgar

    Tell me you haven’t missed that this is a blatant retelling of the book of Hosea? I *could* be wrong, but I struggle to think I am in this case…

    • With a name like “Michael Hosea,” who could possibly miss it? Also there’s the whole “this book is a retelling of the biblical book of Hosea” at the beginning of basically every review everywhere.

      ETA: I’m planning on addressing how Francine’s theology affects how she constructs her retelling of Hosea quite a bit.

      • Christine Woolgar

        OK, fine, no problem then. I wondered as you didn’t seem to mention that in your post and that surprised me. I’ve had someone rave about this book to me as well, and I’ve been wondering about it, so I’ll be very interested in your take on it.

        I think the meaning of faithfulness (and whether that’s to leave someone alone or to keep trying to reach them and/or hold on to them) is something I’ve been mulling on for a while. I think that’s what people are harking at (or think they are) when they talk about being “unrelenting”.

        The other question is how applicable God’s faithfulness towards humanity is appropriately manifested in romantic relationships. Sure, there should be similarities, but there’s a difference between applicability and allegory — and even allegory shouldn’t be taken too literally.

    • Stephanie Rice

      This book was presented to me as a retelling of Hosea. Growing up an evangelical, the only time I ever really read the OT was to find proof texts for whatever the pet sin of the week was, so I had never actually read Hosea. After finishing Redeeming Love I did read Hosea and it was lots of “wait, you got *that* from THAT?” It’s an understatement to say that RL takes a lot of theological liberties.

  • This book went through my college like wild fire. I read it then, and while I enjoyed it, there were many things about it that I found disconcerting–especially about the end.

    I guess spoiler? Do we do spoiler warnings? (It’s a fictional book you’ve never read so I don’t know, better to be safe than sorry I guess)
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Okay spoiler: Angel is said to be infertile (I can’t remember if it’s something done forcibly to her or not, ala Black Widow), and at the end because she comes to God and is so faithful her infertility is “healed” and she gets a child. And I think there is a conversation that needs to be had about this sort of narrative, especially in Christian circles. Personally, I’m a woman who has extremely low odds of ever having a baby due to some medical things, that basically render me functionally infertile. And I’ve known that since I was eighteen and embraced it. But narratives like this are constantly thrown at me, that say, if you were more FAITHFUL, God would bless you! As if having a baby is the single most important thing in my life and the only way God could bless me, or the only way God does bless women. I think this sort of narrative can be extremely harmful to Christian women. So I’m definitely looking forward to that conversation.

    • I have fertility issues, too, and agree that this narrative is damaging.

    • Alice

      I’ve heard the movie “Facing The Giants” has the same problem. A leader at the church I grew up in talked about how hurtful it was for him and his wife because they can’t have kids.

      I think one reason it’s a common trope in fundamentalist media is because it’s a common trope in the bible, but that doesn’t make it okay.

    • KellyLynne

      Ick. On the one hand, I like stories where people with infertility get to have kids, because infertility sucks, and happy endings are nice. But the narrative that you will totally have a baby if you just trust God more is really harmful.

  • gexpl

    Eugh, the book’s description of Michael is pretty squicky to me. He “obeys god’s call to marry her and love her unconditionally”? Eww… it’s phrased like it was Michael’s unilateral decision while Angel is a passive player. Actually, not even Michael’s unilateral decision, but “god’s” as if he may not have even been personally sold on marrying or even loving her, but he has to obey god’s demands. How horrible of a set up for a marriage is that?

    And then Michael’s “pursuing love”??? Nope. Pursuit means that you’re chasing after something or someone that’s trying to leave. That’s not romantic, that’s creepy.

    • You’re actually 100% on the money in how them ending up married plays out. I won’t spoil it, but it is definitely squicky.

    • Kevin

      The idea of being told to marry someone existed in my upbringing. Generally there was room for interest. However there was a story told of a woman who turned down a guy who [thought] he was told she was to be his wife. The story goes that God told her, “It’s not about you.” Personally the story scared me, as I feared getting forced into a marriage with someone I don’t like.(I was reassured that wouldn’t happen.) I even knew a guy who claimed he was only considering marriage to a woman because he heard an audible voice; he said he hoped the attraction would come later.(He ended up moving out of state and marrying someone else.)

      • Melody

        I know about a woman who wanted to be a nurse unless God gave her a guy to marry. So when this guy did come along, she married him. According what my mum’s heard about it she said to him: “I do not love you but I will marry you….”

        Stories like that didn’t make marriage sound very encouraging or fun.

    • If I remember correctly, Angel’s reluctance to be Michael’s wife is framed as a consequence of her being mistreated all her life, therefore she doesn’t believe she deserves him. But when I read it a second time, I got the implication that Angel’s emotional damage prevented her from being able to make clear, healthy decisions for herself, so Michael had to make them for her.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    One thing I remember from reading the book is the heavy handed treatment of a person of faith responding to God telling him to do something. This is a complicated experience in life, and a book like this simplifies it down to hearing exact words in your head. I so much miss CS Lewis’ more nuanced descriptions of how people end up thinking God wants them to do one thing or another. I know I’m jumping ahead, this is about when Michael Hosea rescues Angel from prostitution. If I remember correctly, things have gone sideways for her in the redlight district, and she is in the midst of getting a beating from the madam’s enforcer-dude that will probably end her life. Narratively there needs to be a reason that upstanding pioneer Michael Hosea rescues her from death and degradation, and the book makes it this voice in his head which he knows is God. The thing is, the picture that is held up to evangelicals of what God’s influence looks like and feels like isn’t reality except in rare circumstances. Why doesn’t anyone point this out to the myriad of novel writers and Christian speakers? Why couldn’t an 1840s man step in to help a young woman just out of a sense of decency? I mean, is that too unbelievable? Since I am on this topic of “hearing from God,” Jane Eyre contains several examples of Jane receiving what can only be called Divine Guidance, but it melds so naturally with the narrative that I think most readers don’t even notice that Jane is apparently guided by a Higher Power, although where & how she gets these insights is never clear – possibly it is intuition. My point is that Bronte does a great job of describing a character’s internal state, both thoughts and emotions, that she makes getting inspiration from God seem natural and plausible.

    • Kevin

      “Why couldn’t answer 1840’s man step in to help a woman just out of a sense of decency?”
      Well, for Evangelicals/Fundamentalists, “a sense of decency” only exists because of God; in fact, for them, it’s a popular apologetic(the so-called “moral argument”). Basically this and similar senses exist, thus there must be a Lawgiver Who gave us this sense, so for them it’s all about God anyway. (A popular rebuttal is the Euthyphro dilemma: is something good because God will it[making goodness arbitrary] or does God will it because it’s good[implying there’s a higher standard than God].)

      • Beroli

        “Why couldn’t answer 1840’s man step in to help a woman just out of a sense of decency?”
        Well,
        for Evangelicals/Fundamentalists, “a sense of decency” only exists
        because of God; in fact, for them, it’s a popular apologetic(the
        so-called “moral argument”).

        More than that; having read Dani Kelley’s partial deconstruction of this book, I think Rivers thought that viewing a sex worker as a human being was in and of itself so amazing, so far beyond the call, that no man would ever do it unless God directly told him to and he believed in listening to God.

        The book does, very explicitly, have “God gives direct verbal orders.”

        • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

          This makes me wonder about the historical realities of the Gold Rush. I know there were many more men than women in the West in general, and the Gold Rush brought even more single men. Given that single men usually didn’t have the female cooking/sewing/gardening skills, men both needed and wanted wives much more than we modern people experience, with our ready made clothing and plethora of food options. Did men who moved West in fact accept former prostitutes as wives? Or was this simply never done? I remember reading long ago that 19th century sailors didn’t mind marrying a girl who had been a prostitute because the girl would be unshocked by the realities of sex (unlike other girls of the time), and after living the rough life of prostitution for awhile they were happy to settle down if offered marriage, even if the sailor was poor. I have no idea if that is true about 19th century sailors or not. although it seems reasonable enough. I should try looking into this. Sometimes modern people make assumptions about people of the past, especially about what they would ‘never’ do. They forget there is nothing new under the sun.

    • Monala

      SPOILERS…

      There are two men – one Jewish, one Christian, neither of them Michael – who, much later in the story, help Angel because it’s the right thing to do. And they do so non-coercively.

  • Never read this book and think I will try to follow along- the discussion seems like it will be great.

    The historical novel aspect will make things more complicated, but also possibly more interesting. I’m wary of projecting the agency/attitude of modern sex workers back to the past. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to strip women in the past of their agency either. A bit of a digression (which arose in my mind because of the Gold Rush context): I loved the show Deadwood, but thought it had problems portraying women. All the women, especially the prostitutes, were victims, and most were fairly saintly….you got a distinct sense of Deadwood as a world where women existed to be exploited and beaten up, because “that’s just how it was,” and all the brothel owners were men.

    But when I went to the museum in the actual town of Deadwood I discovered that most of the brothel owners in town had been women, not men. They also had women working under them running more establishments, etc. One of them, Mollie Johnson, married a black man. These women may have exploited the women working for them, and the historical record has plenty about women being abused as well, but the point is that even in an “anarchic” Gold Rush context, women could be active and successful participants in the business. I think the show would have been so much more interesting with some female counterparts to Al Swearengen. Some of the stuff that happens on the show comes straight out of history, so I feel like the show makers must have fully known about the madams, and just deliberately left them out. Disappointing.

    • Given the sections about it that I’ve read … I think Francine was a little liberal with how “historical” her fiction is. I don’t think it depicts sex work at the time even a little bit accurately.

      • ha, I should have guessed as much

      • I honestly don’t remember. She doesn’t honestly go into a huge amount of detail with any of her history, except at the end. It’s just a backdrop.

  • Hosea? You mean, the guy who married the prostitute? I’m not sure the unsubtle name foreshadowing is going to end well.

  • Amanda M.

    I suppose this might be kicking off some sort of discussion on sex trafficking. To me, there is a difference between sex trafficking and choosing sex work. Human trafficking to me always implies some sort of slavery. There is no consent to being in this business and the consent that there may be is coherst. Choosing sex work is a choice that, while I don’t agree with it, is consensual and the person is informed of what it entails prior to going into the profession.

    • There are some people, feminists included, who think all prostitution is sex trafficking. I don’t hold to that position, but there are cohesive arguments against legalizing it, so yeah. This is probably one of the most complicated issues I’m aware of.

      • I would definitely be someone who would describe any and all sex work as problematic at its core, but I’m also pro-decriminalization of sex workers and having our laws emphasize their safety above all else. I feel like I can hold both positions simultaneously, because while I think sex work is problematic and it’s essentially impossible to make it totally safe for those involved in the world we live in, I also think we should do everything possible to ensure that men and women who choose sex work as their profession to stay safe and able to continue their lives as they choose to live them.

        • I think a combination of decriminalizing selling sex, while criminalizing the purchasing of sex, may be a good idea. Of course, this presupposes the idea that sex work should not exist, which is where I personally fall. But if you are alright with that presupposition, then this solution protects sex workers from prosecution, while still making purchasing sex work a crime that can be prosecuted – against the johns.

          • Beroli

            I’m not sure whether* Sam wants a discussion of the ethics of sex work on this blog post; presuming we can discuss it, I would mention that from what I know on the subject, “criminalize the purchase but not the selling” is really unpopular with sex workers.

            *This is not a veiled “I don’t think she wants this discussion here.” It means exactly what I said, that I don’t know. If she clarifies in the negative direction, then I won’t say anything to it further, but I’m not seeing anything obviously bad about it yet so I’m posting this comment.

          • Sam, if I’m out of line to have commented as I did, above, I apologize. Certainly meant no offense!

          • Beroli

            That wasn’t meant to be yelling at you–promise. I was hedging because I wasn’t sure I should be posting what I was.

          • Y’all are fine 🙂

          • Oh good.

          • No worries, I didn’t think you were upset with me, just being cautious.

  • Anna

    I remember reading this book numerous times as a young teenager; I didn’t really feel safe venturing into non-Christian romance novels and since I found this one at the church library, I doubted my parents would object to it. And I read it mostly because of the sex scenes (mostly of the fade-to-black variety), which were the most explicit I’d ever run across at that point in my life. Now that kind of makes me cringe – not reading the book for the sex, but the kind of sex in the book. I remember the scene where Farmer Hosea has sex with Angel for the first time and he’s really controlling about doing it “his way” rather than what she’s comfortable with.

    • In doing research for the series, I discovered they released an updated edition that took out all the sex scenes. There’s a single acknowledgement in my edition for her editor, “for her help in redeeming [her book] for the Christian reader.”

      But yeah, when I discovered *actual* romance novels in college, it was ah-mazing.

    • KellyLynne

      Being controlling during sex….with a rape victim? Ick. So much ick.

    • It’s so coercive. It was scary but didn’t strike me as off the first time I read it, at age 15, but I was still steeped in recovery from being a sexual abuse survivor and surrounded by rhetoric that places men in control anyway. But when I reread it a few years ago, that scene made me shiver. She had no say in anything, at any time. Ever.

    • Lindsaydoodles

      I read it twice (though granted awhile ago) and I do remember the sex scenes being very intense, at least from my sheltered perspective. They were very emotionally intense at least.

  • This was a book-club assignment about six years ago, but I had to stop reading after the first three pages. It felt to me like the book was manipulating my emotions right from the start, deliberately trying to wring the strongest reactions from me. I’m a highly sensitive person, and I know it hasn’t affected everyone this way– but I came out of a coercive Christian group that was very fond of emotional manipulation, and this aspect rendered the book impossible for me to read.

  • keefanda

    At least selling sex at least privately is legal in the vast majority of western democracies (see here
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_by_country
    for more on this), but there still seems to be quite a lot of confusion over the causes of certain problems with respect to prostitution. And so I thought it might be useful to share what some of those who have sold their bodies for sex say. (One of my takeaways? We progressives should agitate for very progressive labor law for *all* workers, and this includes sex workers. It’s a labor issue.)

    Frequently Told Lies
    https://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/resources/frequently-told-lies/

    Quote:

    “LIE: The demonstrable problems with legalization schemes in places like Nevada and the Netherlands constitute an argument in favor of criminalization.
    TRUTH: The demonstrable problems with those legalization schemes constitute an argument in favor of decriminalization. No sex worker rights organization in the world favors the Dutch or Nevada models, precisely because they do give rise to a host of problems which are prevented by treating sex work as work.”

    5 Myths About Prostitutes I Believed (Until I Was One)
    http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-1250-5-myths-about-prostitutes-i-believed-until-i-was-one.html

    Quote:

    “The brothels have other ways of screwing us over. We’re independent contractors, even though by definition that means we can’t be required to do things like keep a strict schedule or live where we work. But the fact that we’re independent means the brothels don’t need to worry about health care, or any sort of benefits. I don’t want to demonize the brothels. This is a service people will provide and receive no matter what, and there needs to be a clean and safe place to do it. But if we’re going to claim these brothels aren’t like pimps, they should stop acting like pimps.

    In the end, I walked out of my time as a prostitute with one great gift: I can negotiate like a goddamn terror. No car salesman or loan officer has gotten the better of me since. Anyone who thinks legal prostitution is a clear case of men exploiting women hasn’t watched a 60-year-old investment banker offer $40,000 for a weekend of back-rubs and cuddling. And anyone who thinks what I just described is easy hasn’t ever faked a romantic weekend with someone they barely know. Exploitation is a two-way street.”

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    Wow. I read the plot summary from Lindsay and my most common reaction was “Dafuq???”

    It’s sad because as I was reading the plot, I kept thinking that a romance between a very religious man and a prostitute could be very interesting…but the idea would be that it’s his patience and kindness that are “relentless.” He never becomes angry with her, even when she lashes out, because he sees how much pain she’s in. He sees her as fully human and worthy of respect even when others don’t.

    And he does the chores for her instead of forcing her to do them.

    But then maybe that’s impossible for a Christian story because a woman who is sexual outside of marriage has to be a sinner and has to be culpable for that. A virtuous man has to be angry with her from a Christian perspective. And that’s where the plot breaks down for me because I don’t see sex workers as having necessarily done anything wrong, but if she represents humanity she has to be bad and in need of repentance.

  • “My conception of God’s love is more like sunlight and moonlight. Always there, always beautiful, but certainly not something that chases me down and drags me, desperately kicking and screaming, back into his house.”

    Oooh this is interesting. When I was an evangelical, I very much believed God’s love means he aggressively pursues us and won’t take no for an answer. Of course he won’t respect our right to say no- he knows what we really need.

    You hear a lot of Christian testimonies about how God supposedly caused some bad thing to happen in someone’s life, and that was the wake-up call they needed to see how much they needed God and how much God loves them.

  • LadyWoman

    The thing about this book is that it seems like a case of someone reading a general story in the Bible and trying to make it SO LITERAL AND APPLICABLE IN ITS EXACT DETAILS that it twists or ruins it. Hosea is basically an allegory (or if you believe Hosea is a real person, then some weird sort of performance art piece) of God and Israel. But as far as I know, God and Israel VOLUNTARILY entered into a covenant together and then Israel broke that by straying. In this story, a woman ends up in a marriage she didn’t consent to and is trapped, violently at times, by a man who for some fucking reason can’t get it through is skull that she might have an issue with this. Those are VERY different stories. On top of that, it’s generally thought that God is the all-knowing, all-righteous creator. The character of Michael Hosea is a fallible human. Again. Very different.

    So Rivers tries to get around this by having God speak word-for-word, unambiguous messages to Michael as a way to force us to accept that he’s 100% doing the right thing. Except, for fuck’s sake! Just because you SAY you’re right does NOT mean someone who doesn’t know you from Adam is going to jump up and go, “Ok! I’m on board!” You can’t just bust in on someone without context, tell them “you’re my wife and I own you and you’re damn well going to like it and thank me. Because God.” That’s not how people work.

    I suppose it just fits in with the weird specific Christian mindset when you’re being a shithead to someone and they are resisting you, it’s because their sin is holding them back, it’ not because you’re being a shithead. You miraculously know EXACTLY what God wants for them and once they realize how right you are (because God) they’ll be so glad you were a shithead.

    • LadyWoman

      Just reread this and realized I’m using “spicier” language than usual. Being super pregnant and uncomfortable has made me really grumpy lately 🙂

      • I’m pregnant, too, and am right there with you, on the spicy language and grumpiness. #lol

  • Wow…I somehow missed this book when it came out. I just read the review you linked to by Lindsay. The Hosea character is so obviously abusive that I’m amazed the book got so many fans. In fact, much of his character reminds me of one of the main characters in a book I myself am writing–But the guy in my book is meant to be seen as controlling and manipulative! And somebody in the comments said Hosea has to have sex his way–Ugh, flashbacks to an abusive ex. 😛

  • Ysolde

    Just beginning the review series and so far I am vastly annoyed by this book. It sounds a whole lot like Twilight for Christians.