Bonneville Books, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-59955-466-2
Historical Romance, 2011
Firstly, some PSA about Carla Kelly’s Borrowed Light. The book has a cover price of $8.99, but it’s in mass market paperback. More significantly, this is an inspirational romance, one where faith is heavily woven into the story.
While most inspirational romances are quite coy in admitting that the religion portrayed the page is anything more than “Christian”, here, Ms Kelly is very open about her characters belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Not everyone is comfortable with the Mormon elements in this story, if reactions across the board to this book is anything to go by, so I’m letting you know of this in advance. Me, I’m a heathen who is open to anything when it comes to religion, so I don’t have any issue with the author choosing to go down the inspirational romance path. Other than the stronger elements of faith, the rest of this story sees the author in her familiar elements.
The story begins in Salt Lake City, 1909, when Julia Darling, the daughter of the prominent local neighborhood banker, decides to break off a sensible, if passionless engagement to an eligible gentleman to throw her chances to the wind and accepts the position of a cook at a ranch in Wyoming. It seems like a mad decision, and perhaps it is, but Julia feels that she has to get away for a while to figure out what she really wants in life. While she is nowhere near the “mature cook” that rancher Paul Otto is expecting, he is nowhere near the old rancher she expects him to be either.
Borrowed Light is in a way a Jekyll and Hyde kind of book. The first half of this story is slow, free from conflict, and too easy to put down. Ms Kelly tends to write about characters that are on the goody-goody side, and here, Paul and Julia are way too perfect to carry the story without putting me to sleep. Julia is a saint. She has no discernible flaws and she is soon taking little kids, starving German immigrants, and more under her wing. Everyone adores her except for the occasional bigot who thinks that Mormons are all about polygamy and nothing else. Paul is searching for a way to connect with his late mother’s family, but in the meantime, he takes in any lost soul who shows up at his doorsteps seeking a roof and a job. For a rancher, he is without prejudices and he displays very little uncouth or rough manner I’d associate with a rancher. Indeed, Paul and Julia experience very little disconnect. She may be initially a fish out of water when it comes to living in the ranch, but he is infinitely patient and supportive of her efforts to fit in.
Because there is no genuine conflict in the first half of the story, it is too easy to put this book down. However, in the second of the book, things abruptly become much darker. I don’t want to spoil this second half too much, so let me just say that personal tragedies and external crisis crop up, forcing Julia and Paul to open up to each other even as they find solace and strength in each other’s company. This is an inspirational romance and therefore the characters don’t even kiss until very much later into the story, but in this second half, there is an intensity to the emotions that feel far more real and intimate than twenty pages of explicit love scenes. This second half is Ms Kelly at the top of her game as she easily moves me to tears with her story during the heartbreaking moments and makes me smile with giddy delight when her characters finally realize that they are truly in love with each other.
Faith is strongly woven into the story, as Julia is an unwavering Mormon while Paul is trying to find the light. There is no escaping the whole faith, love, and God thing, I’m afraid. As I am not a Mormon, do I feel excluded from the story? In some ways, yes, as there is always a disconnect between me and the characters. But since the story still manages to move me to tears of joy or sorrow, so I’m not too excluded. However, I am quite disappointed that the author falls back into the traditional inspirational trope of having the man being the woman’s catalyst to examine her faith deeper. In the context of this story, there are scenes where Paul behaves like a stern Sunday school teacher, asking Julia about her faith and telling her when he finds her answers unsatisfactory. But he’s the rancher who is searching for his faith, one who believes that he is a sinner who doesn’t deserve to attend the Church. Therefore, those scenes feel very out of character for Paul – those scenes feel like a vehicle for the author to talk about faith.
Borrowed Light is, at the end of the day, an uneven read. I find the first half of the book just okay – a little too easy to put down due to the lack of compelling conflict to balance the whole Mormon Poppins vibe – but the second half of the book is very good. If I do reread this book in the future, I’d skip the first half of the story and straight reading from Chapter 22.