Some readers may be put off by the cover and title of the debut novel from Williston resident Sarah Healy, Can I Get an Amen? With its image of a bobble head, dashboard Jesus traveling blithely down a suburban street, the novel could be a comic inspirational tale or a satirical takedown of born-again culture — it’s hard to say which. In reality, Can I Get a Amen? is neither. But it may be the future of chick lit.
In these postrecession days, readers seem to have developed an aversion to covers adorned with Manolos and martinis, but that doesn’t mean chick lit is dead. Under the more mature designation of “women’s contemporary fiction,” it’s simply branching out into weightier matters than mate hunting and conspicuous consumption.
Infertility, for one. Healy’s 31-year-old heroine, Ellen Carlisle, is struggling with the realization that she has “done everything right” — secured the perfect mate and the perfect home in the perfect neighborhood — only to find herself forcibly evicted from her dream because she can’t give her husband the biological children that are part of his. Preparing for a divorce she didn’t choose, she loses her job to the recession.
Ellen’s misfortune goes against the creed that her well-heeled, evangelical mother drummed into her head at an early age: “We were Christians, and that meant that an omnipotent and benevolent deity had our backs.” Although Ellen, like her siblings, left the church as an adult, she finds herself confronting those old convictions when she moves back home to lick her wounds and rebuild her life. Is prayer the answer, as her mother insists? Or is religion merely a pernicious hypocrisy, as her firebrand sister counters?
To her credit, Healy doesn’t pretend these loaded questions have easy answers. Ellen’s mother, a preacher’s daughter with secrets in her past, is a nuanced, evolving character, not a fundamentalist cardboard cutout. The spirited sister is compelling, too. In fact, the novel’s weakest link is Ellen herself. Steeped in ambivalence and self-pity, our narrator-protagonist comes off as a passive impediment to the plot, not a force driving it.
In a concession to the standard chick-lit model, Healy has given her heroine a new love interest too good to be true: a do-gooder intellectual named Mark who wears hipster glasses and has “long, well-defined muscles.” Inevitably, there is just one thing wrong with Mark, and Healy slips the reader the right clues to guess his secret almost immediately. Ellen, for her part, needs the bulk of the novel to suss out the reasons for her beau’s strange behavior. Meanwhile, the frustrated reader may have increasing difficulty sympathizing with her travails, which involve a mean-girl high school rival (now flaunting her fertility) and hints that Ellen’s parents aren’t as solvent as they pretend.
Healy’s prose is lively, and by far the best parts of the book are her wry descriptions of the born-again lifestyle. When she reached adolescence, Ellen recalls, “The tit-for-tat God that slammed the pearly gates and shooed you away with a broom was replaced by more of a Match.com type of deity. ‘The Lord wants a relationship with you, Ellen!’ my mother would plead.”
For all the snark of passages like that, the author isn’t peddling simplistic views of spirituality, positive or negative. Healy makes up for the novel’s more groanworthy tendencies with a subdued, poignant closing that refuses to give readers the standard happily-ever-after. Fans of the genre who know what it’s like to clash with family over faith — far from a rare problem in the U.S. — will find Amen a promising debut.
"Can I Get an Amen?" by Sarah Healy, New American Library, 325 pages. $15.