Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Married the Bishop

No, wait, he became bishop after I married him.  Not me, I mean, Linda Walheim, the narrator, protagonist, VERY erstwhile detective, and eponymous bishop's wife of the novel The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison.

Okay, I go back and forth between writing a polite review about the many things this book tried to do and where it fell short and just rambling on about how I didn't like it.  The latter is more entertaining and satisfying; the former is the more generous choice in a world where an author is quite likely to find your review.  The former, however, is also not where my skill set lies.

Let's settle in between for something straightforward, because I don't want to spend a lot of time on this.  To sum it up: the reason I finished this book was because I had a distant (and shrinking) hope that it would turn out to be a complete mind-bender and that the narrator--a passive, hand-wringing waffler of a Mormon housewife--would turn out to be the murderer.  That would have been fascinating, if nothing else.  Sadly, it's not a spoiler to say, no dice.

This is a book where a rough summary is easy and a detailed one is impossible.  Short version: Linda Walheim is a good Mormon housewife whose last kid is almost out of the house and whose husband is serving as bishop, putting her in a vicarious position in the center of ward (like a parish, only Mormon) life.  A couple of the domestic dramas turn out to be complicated by disappearances that might relate to murders.

The longer version is almost illegible, because nobody's motivations make any sense.  A man and his five year old daughter report his wife mysteriously missing.  He claims she's run out on him, but her parents claim that she was escaping abuse.  Linda, who lost her only daughter at birth years ago, can't believe any mother would leave her daughter like that. (This assumption is neither backed up nor challenged.)

Linda (for some reason) inserts herself into the investigation.  Though she has almost no contact with the police, she questions people and is nosy.  Really, in many ways, the sense that she's trying to solve the mystery comes entirely from her thinking about it a lot.  There are many scenes, in fact, where she does something like sit in a chair and think vague thoughts for a long time.  Kind of assumed that she'd turn out to be mentally ill.  Nope.

Revelations roll forth, as well as other mysteries, and I won't spoil them except to say that this reads very much like a first draft.  If the original events played out the way the Big Reveal demonstrates them, it would not make sense for any of the people with things to hide to behave the way they do early in the story.  It's like the plot was made up as it went along, but nobody went back to look for continuity.

In many ways, I read it as an anthropological exercise; a book by a Mormon author in a modern Mormon setting did contain some interesting details.  But every time she got close to something (men have too much power in the Church; "family secrets" can hide violent and dangerous things; even men who are not sexist can be pretty sexist), she skirts away from it and neither explores the issue nor even gives you a comforting platitude about it.  I'd feel better about this book if it read like solidly believed dogma instead of a doubter who doesn't really want to bother with what it means to doubt.

And where the HECK were the police?  She never calls them, she keeps telling herself she can't do better than them, but when she searches the house, she finds the victim's discarded cellphone?  That the police missed somehow?  And then doesn't tell them?  But then a cop shows up and gives her a very reasonable lecture about how the police are going to help, and "they probably won't believe me" is a dumb excuse, and she agrees, and then keeps doing the exact same stuff she's doing.

I guess I was looking for a Susan Isaacs thing, where a random lady insinuates herself into a murder investigation and turns out to have some bright ideas, insights, and uncovers information--just Utah instead of New York.  But no, this is about a random lady who stands very still and watches life moving around her, thinking hard about having an opinion, but in the end not really doing much of anything at all.

Except in that one, seriously unbelievable scene with the SWAT team--oh, I just can't.  I'm sorry.  Not recommended.

(And here's where I admit that I got this book from Netgalley for an honest review.  Well it's definitely an honest review.)

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