I'm not exactly in the target audience for this book. It's described as an 'inspirational historical romance', and I don't do romance, I don't do historical and I certainly don't do inspirational. So what on earth am I doing reading it? Well, the author, Jody Hedlund, writes a blog about her authorial and family life that I rather enjoy. She sounds like a nice lady, who writes in her spare time, while also home-schooling five young children. Presumably she doesn't chain them up in the cellar while she writes, so I daresay there's a tame husband in the picture too. I have nothing but admiration for those who manage to create something for themselves, as well as baking cookies, bandaging grazed knees and all the myriad other duties of motherhood.
That in itself isn't enough to make me rush out and buy her book, but I was fascinated to read the reviews, because they were almost uniformly glowing, and far too many to all be written by friends of the author. That was intriguing. So when I discovered that the Kindle version was a free download, I decided to find out for myself what it was like. It took me a while to get into it (did I mention it's not my usual type of thing?) but I was determined to give it a fair shot, so I kept going.
In historical terms, I have no idea how accurate it is. The Kindle version employs an irritating pseudo-archaic font with curly bits, and the text is sprinkled with 'twas' and 'besure' and 'mine own' and 'oft' and suchlike, which don't always sound totally convincing. I got very little sense of place - there are few descriptions of buildings or scenery or clothes, so I had to use my imagination a lot. I wasn't even sure if it was set in England for a while. But occasionally the author uses a term or describes an event (like the bread-making) which sounds completely authentic, so she's obviously done her research.
The romance is - well, the usual thing. Two people who absolutely positively don't even like each other, but after a series of trials find that they do, actually, quite a lot. The hero and heroine are a bit irritating to start with. Elizabeth is a curious mixture of determined assertiveness and maidenly helplessness. She's quite priggish with her sister, too, constantly nagging her virtuously to be more of a good person. John is quite gruff and snappy, but then he has just lost his wife, so perhaps that's only to be expected. He's supposed to be quite a charismatic character, but that never quite came across to me.
The inspirational part is not a problem. There's a lot of talk about doing God's work and submitting to the will of God, but that's very much in keeping with the setting. Maybe I'm cynical, but it surprised me just how often God's will turned out to coincide with exactly what a character wanted to do anyway.
I had some issues with the logistics of the plot. The initial premise that the local matrons would allow a baby to die rather than permit an unsuitable (read: not a virtuous person like us) wet-nurse seemed a bit of a stretch to me, and I couldn't totally buy into Elizabeth's excessive zeal to remedy the situation. And when she found the unsuitable Lucy, the matrons apparently do nothing about it. Then there is the evil Mr Foster. I know times were different then, but they were not quite lawless, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone, however rich or powerful, could get away with murder in broad daylight without any fear of retribution. In fact, the bad guys were far too bad altogether, and the good guys were a little too virtuous. Shades of grey are much more interesting and believable than outright black and white. But then, it's a book about Christians and persecution, so perhaps that's inevitable.
The other issue is that much of the tension in the romance part of the story hinges on the fact that the protagonists either misunderstand each other or deliberately refuse to talk to each other. Given that both of them are supposedly eloquent and persuasive speakers, it seems odd that they become so inarticulate with each other. The author makes a good attempt at explaining this away, but it remains a hindrance to credibility.
But despite these minor niggles, the story rattles along quite nicely and becomes a real page-turner. None of the minor characters have much real depth to them, although the shallow Catherine was more interesting than most. Elizabeth's suitor, Samual Muddle, is made into a cartoonishly ridiculous figure, but it seems to me that her dilemma would be given more pathos if he were less silly - a worthy but dull man, perhaps. However, the hero and heroine were quite well done, considering how difficult it can be to make such pious characters sympathetic (the villain is always easier to write, and to read about too!). There were some philosophical points in there, too, about who has the greatest right to interpret the word of God, and the effect on a highly structured society of working class people taking control of their own beliefs. Since the story is based (rather loosely) on the life of John Bunyan and his second wife Elizabeth, his ideas are bound to infuse the book. Some of the dialogue is apparently taken directly from his writings.
On the whole, the book was enjoyable enough and surprisingly readable - well, it surprised me. As a debut effort, it has some structural flaws, and the writing is sometimes a bit clunky, but the romance was nicely done, if a little overwrought at times, and the historical aspects were interesting. Three stars.