Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Mailbox by Marybeth Whalen — 320 pgs


Book CoverOver the course of 20 years, Lindsay Adams visits the same beach house owned by her aunt and uncle. Over that same span of time, she leaves a yearly letter at the end of each summer in the mailbox tended by the Kindred Spirit. Lindsay's first visit comes when she's just 15 and she meets an amazing boy named Campbell Forrester, who quickly becomes her first love. Though Campbell lives on the island and Lindsay further away, they make a pact to continue their relationship over the year, to be reunited in the summer. After a couple of years visiting the beach and Campbell, things take a drastic turn when Campbell gets sucked into a relationship with another girl. Lindsay is heartbroken but continues to visit the beach and the mailbox, avoiding Campbell for many years. Now Lindsay is returning to the beach after a painful divorce that has left her a single mother. When she comes across an old friend of Campbell's, she admits to herself that she is curious about her first love and takes pains to run into him again. Campbell is living a lonely life with his mother and teenage daughter, and is thrilled to have encountered Lindsay again and possibly have a second chance. But there are things in both of their pasts and present that will present some serious roadblocks to their happiness, and only with the help of God will they finally be able to reconcile and share each other's lives. Both tender and touching, Whalen creates a tale of lost and found love amid the everyday struggles of a life that continues to march along ceaselessly.

Late last year, I had the great honor of meeting Marybeth Whalen at one of the SIBA dinner events. After introducing ourselves and finding out a little about each other, she asked me what types of books I like to review. I mentioned that I read almost everything but there were a few exceptions, one of them being Christian fiction. Much to my chagrin, Marybeth told me she is a Christian fiction author. She told me a few things about her book The Mailbox and also about the book she was currently working on, and I had to admit I was intrigued. I explained to her the reason I generally don't enjoy Christian fiction is because at times it can feel a little sanctimonious and the messages are always batted expansively over the readers' heads. Marybeth replied that she often feels this way as well and that she strives not to do these types of things in her stories. It pleased me greatly to hear this, and as the weekend wore on, I kept running into her in unexpected places and we had more in-depth conversations about both her life and her books. I knew I wanted to read her book and see how she handled faith within the constructs of her story and she was nice enough to provide me a copy to review. When I read the book, I thought, well now this is the type of Christian fiction that I can get behind!

One of the first things I noticed about the characters was they were very original and socially dynamic. There wasn't anything about them I couldn't relate to, and though they had their feet firmly planted into the Christian world, they were flawed and troubled and didn't go on mini-rants about religion and spirituality. They were also not too wholesome to feel connected to, and Lindsay had a lot of both internal and external strife that she was trying to work through. These characters weren't goody-goodies and they weren't obsessively preachy about their beliefs. They didn't alienate other characters or, more importantly, the reader by being flawlessly even-tempered and morally overpowering. As the story begins to wind its way along, Whalen's characters reveal themselves to be people troubled by the past and burdened by the future. They come to discover their lives are filled with conundrums and half-realized dreams. They were engaging people, dealing with isolation, loneliness and heartache, and they struggled mightily with their pride and their expectations. In other words, these were the type of people that just about anyone could relate to and become invested in. I also think Whalen has an incredible gift for the creation of her male characters, which is not often the case with female authors. Campbell wasn't overly macho, nor was he overly sentimental.

The faith aspect mostly centered around the characters' prayer life. Instead of using her creative space to preach, Whalen instead lets the characters speak for themselves and shares how they use prayer to combat the sadness and futility of their lives. I liked this because I'm a big prayer person and feel it was a realistic portrayal of how spiritual people deal with the adversity that life throws at them. The praying also reminded me a lot of the praying I do. Instead of being formal, rigid and structured, it was more like a conversation on the fly with God. The characters spoke to Him as if He were a friend or mentor instead of an all-powerful entity that's not easily approachable. Their prayers felt real because it felt unforced and unconstructed. It was a tool they used to cope with their lives and it felt honest. I actually liked the fact that Whalen was humble enough to include this aspect in her story and it was perhaps the reason I felt especially close to the characters.

Though this book was ostensibly a love story, it also had a lot to do with moving forward in life after tragedy strikes and how life can throw a monkey wrench into carefully laid plans. The characters were not the type of people who lamented and obsessed over lost opportunity but instead they moved forward without blame or accusation. There was a feeling of perseverance and stolidness in this tale, and though most of the characters were dealing with harsh emotional issues, they all had healthy attitudes about themselves and their predicaments. The book really touched on a lot of important issues, such as infidelity, anorexia and jealously, in a way that was easy to relate to and understand. There would be quite a lot here for a book club to discuss and disseminate. Of course, I was rooting for Lindsay and Campbell to finally reunite, but before that happened, they had some serious issues to confront and they had to learn to forgive one another, not only to move forward into the future, but to heal the wounds of the past.

This book was refreshing not only in the way it portrayed its characters and their plights but in the way it encompassed the spirituality of its potential readers. It showed me that being a Christian is not about being morally smug and alienating others, and that's something most Christian fiction authors don't even attempt to accomplish with their books. It's not about being better or more spiritual; It's about finding the peace and acceptance that can heal your broken life, and learning that at its best, spirituality doesn't have to separate us at all. I thought Whalen did a great job with this book and I'm eager to read what she is working on now. I think she really gets it, and I think even those who don't share the same spiritual beliefs would get a lot from the story she tells. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

14 comments:

TheBookGirl said...

This sounds like a beautifully written novel. I do read Christian fiction from time to time, and have sort of accepted that I will be hit over the head with the message, as part and parcel of reading in that genre. Your suggestion that that does not necessarily have to be the case, makes me want to seek this one out.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I was loving the summary up until the point about "only with the help of God will they finally be able to reconcile and share each other's lives." I don't think I could do this kind of a book! But I appreciate your thorough and sensitive review and coverage of the religious aspect!

Amy said...

I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this. How funny to say you don't like Christian fiction to a CF author..but I'm sure they are quite used to it. As you know I read a fair bit of CF and I think there's more good stuff out there than it has a reputation for, but I also like for faith to be a central element of the story...faith not religion or being perfect, mind you. :) I hope to read this at some point.

Jenny said...

This does sound good. I laughed at rhapsodyinbooks comment when she said she loved the summary until that sentence. It's so funny because as soon as I hit that part it was like "OH"... hahah. I used to enjoy some christian fiction but at some point I guess I decided it wasn't quite for me. This one definitely sounds good though, like the author did a good job of portraying the characters' spirituality without being preachy or anything. Great review! I may check this book out one day.

bermudaonion said...

I thought Marybeth handled the whole thing quite well at SIBA! I love that her characters aren't perfect like they are in so many Christian fiction books. I'm looking forward to reading this book.

Suko said...

Zibilee, what an interesting story about how you met the author and came to read this book, which is Christian fiction. It sounds as if you thought the book was great, and that the characters were perfect precisely because of their imperfections and struggles. I will keep an eye out for this book. Excellent, thoughtful review.

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I've been wanting to explore Christian fiction, but I am also turned off by the sanctimonious preaching (or perhaps my fear of it, as I haven't actually read any), but this sounds like a great place to start. I'm intrigued enough to give it a shot. Thanks for opening my eyes to a new (to me) genre!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

What a great review. It sounds like a great story, but I don't generally enjoy Christian fiction; it always seems a bit too preachy for me.

Sandy Nawrot said...

It is funny how many of us are very much Christian people, and very much avid readers, but turn away from Christian fiction! I have shared the same sentiments as you have, but I'm totally willing to read something from this genre if it isn't preachy. How wonderful that you had a chance to meet this author at SIBA! (I'm beginning to work my way through my SIBA books.)

Sandy Nawrot said...

It is funny how many of us are very much Christian people, and very much avid readers, but turn away from Christian fiction! I have shared the same sentiments as you have, but I'm totally willing to read something from this genre if it isn't preachy. How wonderful that you had a chance to meet this author at SIBA! (I'm beginning to work my way through my SIBA books.)

Jenners said...

I too tend to shy away from Christian fiction after blundering into one or two books accidentally. I didn't like the preachy aspect ... or the overly dramatic plots where people just "up and gave over to God" without taking some action and responsibility themselves. Glad to hear that there is some more accessible Christian fiction out there. (I mean, I knew there was but I wouldn't know WHERE it was.)

Amy said...

I'm almost finished reading "The Mailbox" and it's an awesome story. It's written so beautifully that it borders on poetic! My current life situation is very much like the main character's, except that (sadly) my teenage love "Campbell" morphed into "Grant" over the past year. I can identify with so many of Lindsey's thoughts and feelings. Every work of fiction includes the disclaimer about how any similarities between the characters/story and any real people/situations is completely coincidental. Had I not known better, I'd swear that the author was writing about me! Definitely worth reading.

Amy said...

This sounds like a great read. I avoid Christian fiction for the same reasons, it often feels formulaic, preachy, and characters are just too good to be believed. Glad to hear that wasn't the case with this one!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I don't normally read Christian fiction, however in the past few months, I've read a few that I wasn't aware were part of that category. Which, after those experiences, I realized that now I'm pretty much open to the genre! This looks like a good one!

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