Val Brelinski’s novel “The Girl Who Slept with God” traces the upheaval in an evangelical family when their daughter returns from a service mission convinced that she is carrying the child of God. Brelinski appears Aug. 11 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Coming-of-age fiction often features young protagonists who mature after they are separated from their parents, either because they have run away or been orphaned. In her first novel, “The Girl Who Slept With God” (Viking, 368 pp., $27.95), Val Brelinski takes a different tack, with her story of evangelical parents who banish their teenage daughters from their home.
Grace Quanbeck, 17, returns from a service mission in Mexico pregnant and believing that she is carrying the child of God. Her religious fervor confounds even her parents, Oren and Esther. She tells them that “it was an angel … He said I shouldn’t tell anyone because no one would believe it…. Jesus, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Mary — no one ever believed them at first, did they?”
Her parents’ response is to purchase a house on the edge of their rural Idaho town and install Grace and her 13-year-old sister Jory there, to live until Grace’s baby is born. It is unclear at first whether this exile is meant to punish or conceal shame, but this decision sets in motion a cascade of experiences for the two banished sisters that leads to a sorrowful conclusion.
The author of “The Girl Who Slept with God” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
While Grace’s deep convictions about how she should live have brought the sisters together, it is Jory who is the rebellious, observant protagonist of this story. Brelinski’s marvelous characterization of Jory — curious, wistful, pragmatic and self-absorbed — reveals how an adolescent’s feelings about what is cool or scary, inviting or repellent, are mutable and often completely unsupported by experience. Jory’s innocence, and her initial inability to evaluate the new people she meets, amplify the tension in the narrative. Not only must she learn to read people in her new school, but she must reconcile what she understands about Grace’s situation with what her parents think.
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Set in 1970, Brelinski’s novel juxtaposes the family’s evangelical faith with Oren Quanbeck’s work as an astronomy professor, adding another layer of depth to this complex portrait of a family in upheaval. The author’s characters are not wholly good or bad, even when they are in conflict with each other, and they are never cartoonish, even when they happen to be hippies or high-school jocks.
Jory’s attraction to the 20-something drifter, Grip, who drives an ice-cream truck stocked with mind-altering substances in addition to ice cream, propels much of the action in the novel. He is a textured character who is slowly and believably revealed. Brelinski excels at capturing the mixture of sensations and hormones in the teenage girl: She feels “sick almost, thrilled and nervous and wonderful and sick just from looking at him.”
Another source of tension comes in the oblique characterization of Esther Quanbeck, the severely depressed mother of Jory and Grace, as well as a much younger daughter. Early on, Jory has noticed that youthful photos of her mother before her marriage show a confident and happy young woman, and Jory is “angry and dismayed” that the state of motherhood itself may be to blame for her mother’s withdrawal. Jory perceives that “the sad, disheartening thing that seemed to have damaged or broken her mother appeared not to have touched her father at all.”
This is a compelling, thought-provoking story about female adolescence, family love, faith and independence, with a well-drawn girl at the heart of it.