Published by Macmillan, Roaring Brook Press on June 2, 2015
Genres: contemporary, realistic fiction
Pages: 336 pages
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Rachel Walker is devoted to God. She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy. But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves. Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.
I don’t know how to convince you to read Devoted, but I think you should. It’s not the sort of thing I usually pick up – I do read broadly, but my favorite books are more likely to be sci-fi or fantasy than contemporaries – but I’m glad that I did, in this case.
Devoted hasn’t seemed to receive much attention so far and I’m not sure why? Because this book is an excellent, though very quiet, character study. And in addition to this, it’s beautifully written and it engages with many issues that are central to young adult literature. It’s a good one, you all. (And I don’t think you need to be religious or Christian to read it; do not be scared off by the title or the synopsis. I grew up in an interfaith household that was super different from this, and liked it anyway.)
The central premise is as follows: seventeen year-old Rachel has grown up in a religious Christian household that adheres fairly strictly to Biblical teachings. (It’s suggested that they’re members of the Quiverfull movement.) The family homeschools and they’re regular church-goers – as an older sister who’s training to become a wife and mother, Rachel is responsible for the care and keeping of her younger siblings. Rachel’s father holds authority over the household – Rachel isn’t allowed to go places unaccompanied, she can’t read A Wrinkle in Time without her father’s say-so, and he’s responsible for her spiritual guidance.
When the story begins, Rachel is already experiencing doubt about the course her life is supposed to follow – she knows that, like her sister, she’ll be married and become a mother soon, and while she loves her brothers and sisters, she doesn’t feel ready. She’s also intellectually curious (and can’t understand why loving A Wrinkle in Time is incompatible with loving God, for example) and has fought to learn how to do things that are different from what her family wants for her (i.e., she learns to create and manage a website for her dad’s business).
When her father lectures them one night about Lauren, a young woman who was exiled from their community but has since returned to their small town, Rachel is curious. Though she’s been forbidden from speaking to Lauren, Rachel finds her website late one night and sends her a sympathetic email. The plot takes off from there: Rachel isn’t sure that she wants this life for herself and Lauren, who escaped it several years ago, seems to offer a way out.
What I liked about this book: I loved Mathieu’s development of Rachel as a character. When I say that this novel is an excellent character study, I mean it – the story is told through a first person narrative, and Rachel’s voice is compelling and interesting. I’m glad Mathieu chose to tell the story that way – being inside Rachel’s head really brings the complexities of her situation to life, and one of the things I very much enjoyed about the novel was how well it deals with those complexities. That is to say that the novel doesn’t over-simplify Rachel’s situation; instead, it really engages with her love for her family, her very real devotion to God, and how heartbreaking it is for her to have to even consider a new way of living.
This trend continues through the novel’s portrayal of Rachel’s relationship to her own faith. While Lauren, the young woman who escaped from Rachel’s community years earlier, wants nothing to do with any form of organized religion, Rachel finds that her faith changes and becomes stronger after leaving her family. While I didn’t particularly care where Rachel ended up – I have zero investment in whether her character has faith or doesn’t – I liked that the novel presented different responses to similar crises of faith. Although Lauren and Rachel initially fight over whether Rachel should reject organized religion entirely, they eventually commit to letting the other be free to make their own decisions (and I really liked this, because it affirms their friendship as a place where both of them are free to figure out who they are with the other’s support). In the absence of their families, Rachel and Lauren find a new family in each other. And strong female friendships – and found families – are things I really enjoy reading about, so I really appreciated how well this discussion was handled in the text.
Another really welcome aspect to this story for me was its almost total lack of a romantic relationship. There is admittedly a boy in whom Rachel becomes interested (and spoiler alert, he gives her the L’Engle books she hasn’t read! SWOON ALERT), View Spoiler »but their relationship never really goes anywhere, and I liked that a lot. The book ends with the possibility that she’ll see him in the school she’s just enrolled in, and that’s that. And it’s lovely. « Hide Spoiler The story is, as a whole, characterized by an openness to possibilities for Rachel, and I think the addition of a romantic relationship would have shut some of that down.
Although a religious community is the backdrop for the story, Devoted really deals with themes that are fairly common to young adult literature: how do your parents’ choices affect your life and the choices you make? what does it mean to be an individual who’s also a part of a community? how do you negotiate between the demands that different relationships make on you? Because of this – and because the writing and characterization are really beautifully done – I loved this book. I will admit that it is also may be the second book all year to make me cry. (Cynthia Hand’s The Last Time We Said Goodbye was the first.) I’m not sure why this book hit me so strongly in the feels, but it totally did.