When I first heard about former Time magazine reporter Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s new novel, Pastors’ Wives, my first reaction was, “Ooh, I can’t wait to read that.”
My second reaction was, “I wonder how bad it’s going to make Christians look?”
Well, after finishing Pastors’ Wives, I can say the novel is unsparing but not unfair, and never dull. The story follows three women who are married to ministers at Greenleaf Church, an Atlanta megachurch. There’s Ruthie, the Manhattan public relations handler whose husband had suddenly quit the corporate world to pursue a higher calling. There’s Candace, the larger than life “First Lady” behind Greenleaf’s charismatic senior pastor. Then, there’s Ginger, the unlikely wife of Candace’s son, who must figure out how her own path as her do-gooder husband spends increasing amounts of time overseas.
Through the character of Ruthie, who like Cullen was raised Catholic, we get an outsider’s perspective on the world of non-denominational evangelical Christianity, from her surprise at finding the in-church espresso bar, to the rifts in her marriage as her otherwise “normal” husband earnestly pursues God. Candace, the Steel Magnolia of the bunch, feels the least believable of the characters — or perhaps I just met the right pastor’s wives. Cullen did do her research, as the novel was borne out of a Time assignment about a convention of ministers’ wives.
Religion aside, the part I found most interesting about the novel is how Cullen, who is Japanese and Caucasian, weaves Asian minor characters into the story: the Korean girlfriend of Ruthie’s widowed father, an unscrupulous porn king. Perhaps it would not have been believable (or marketable) to write a story set in an Asian American church — and Lord knows there are plenty of them — but a reader can dream, right?
Despite my few grumbles, I found the book very enjoyable, perhaps sinfully so. The characters’ spiritual struggles are as engrossing as the fast-moving plot involving a newspaper reporter, a disgruntled church elder, and many dark secrets. Pastors’ Wives may not be the kind of book to read in church, but it would be great for the faithful and doubters alike to tuck into beach bags or suitcases this summer.
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Plume Books sent me a copy of Pastors’ Wives for review, but all the opinions expressed are my own.
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