By Amy Sue Nathan
In the past few years I’ve learned that the good stuff happens right outside my comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, the comfort zone is called that for a reason. It’s comfortable, easy, familiar.
As my grandmother would have said, “Feh.”
About ten years ago, when I met my blogging partner and friend, Tina Ann Forkner, I read her books. I know I quoted the essay on this blog. But it bears repeating. Reading and talking about those books was a bonding experience for us (oh, look at me, referencing Tina’s last blog post on bonds). I reread the essay I wrote about that experience and it all holds true now. It’s the story that strengthened our friendship, and also taught me many lessons I carried forward.
I like a lot of books, but I’m not sure I’d say I read widely. But that’s okay for me, as long as once in a while I’m stepping outside my own box when I open a book.
When a Nice Jewish Author Reads a Christian Novel
I read best-sellers, bargain books, literary fiction, memoir, historical fiction, chick lit, women’s fiction, (some) thrillers, cozy mysteries, cookbooks, young-adult, middle grade, humor and the occasional romance.
But I’m Jewish so I don’t read Christian fiction.
Or do I?
My friend, Tina Ann Forkner, writes Christian fiction. Her novel, Rose House, was on my TBR (to-be-read) list. For over a year. I was nervous. I wanted to be supportive. I wanted to like the book. Tina and I had just launched our friendship right before her first book was published, and while I read it, I didn’t contemplate it. I didn’t feel vested in the friendship at the time like I did when Rose House was published.
I decided if I read Tina’s book and it preached, proselytized or put-down my own beliefs, I’d tuck it under the leg of a wobbly table and Tina would never be the wiser. I’d just never mention it, and being the class-act she is, she’d never ask.
This isn’t a book review, it’s a review of my own understanding of different kinds fiction. It’s my job to be enlightened and to understand books and publishing. I want to understand how stories work and where they fit, and maybe try to understand why.
I was surprised to be delighted with the book from the start. Complex characters in real life situations, quandaries and questions, intrigue, a little romance, family dynamics, cultural anthropology and a dynamite setting. The characters — most of them — were Christian. Some had fallen-off church’s wagon but the premise of the book was not to get them back on. The theme of the book was hope. These characters drew their hope from their faith, but never once did I feel like any character was inauthentic in his or her actions and words. Their beliefs were organic to the story.
I had assumed it would be different. Shame on me.
Then, I wondered — why is this Christian fiction if Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed and Certain Girls aren’t Jewish fiction? Or are they? How about Snow in August, The Red Tent, Sarah’s Key, Sophie’s Choice or Marjorie Morningstar?
In my forthcoming novel, The Glass Wives, the main characters are Jewish, but the book isn’t about being Jewish. Their lives are peppered with Jewish traditions like shiva (the Jewish mourning ritual) and Passover. The characters exemplify some stereotypes as well, like the tendency of Jewish mothers to feed people (you know they do). The characters’ conversations and thoughts are sprinkled with Yiddish. Oy gevalt!
Books are meant to entertain, educate, and engage readers, so stepping outside one’s own experience is a way to make all of this happen. Whether it’s traveling to a fantasy world, back in time, or into a new culture, it’s just important for all of us to do it. It’s also comforting to read about the familiar and to see it in a new way.
In Rose House, the sisters, Lillian and Geena, remember growing up as pastor’s kids and have fond memories of church services of their youth. I have fond memories of synagogue services of my youth. I related to Lillian and Geena’s memories. The similarities outweighed the differences.
It’s hard to step outside our circle of familiar, but it’s often the only way to see and make changes.
A few years ago I took my teenage daughter on a shopping trip where she promised she was going to shop outside her comfort zone. The year before she’d worn jeans and T-shirts, sweatpants and T-shirts, the occasional hoodie and infrequent shirt without words. Now she wanted something different. My advice was to try on anything she thought she might like and go from there. No one in the fitting room, especially not I, was going to force her to go home with something she’d never wear or didn’t like.
And while the pile of new shirts was mostly gray, black and white — she did come away with a purple sweater and a plaid (plaid!) button-down with a belt and there was nary a T-shirt or a cute quote or retro-character in the collection.
She wouldn’t have known she liked something different unless she tried it on, stepped back, looked in the mirror from different angles.
And I’m thinking it’s the same reading new genres and new authors.
I’m not suggesting every Jewish person read a novel published by a Christian publisher, but I am thinking if you see or hear of a book of any kind that is a little outside your ordinary, try it.
You might find it’s something very familiar:
A good story.
Amy Sue Nathan is the author of Left to Chance, The Good Neighbor, and The Glass Wives. She is also the founder of The Women’s Fiction Writers blog, named a Best Website for Writers three years in a row by Writer’s Digest. Amy is the proud mom of two grown children (her favorite oxymoron) the willing servant to one thirteen-year-old dog.