It is a sordid tale of child molestation, alcoholism, spousal abuse, negative self-image, warped religion, self-mutilation, unhealthy relationships, murder, adultery, teenage pregnancy, lost faith, and rape.
Is it the latest runaway hit mini-series on HBO? Maybe a particularly difficult-to-comprehend passage in the Old Testament?
Nope. It’s a book recommended by Oprah.
I didn’t know exactly what kind of expectations I had for Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald. To be honest, I know that most modern and post-modern literature is full of “revelation” in the form of sexually explicit language, illicit encounters, and horrifying skeletons in the closet. The only difference from author to author seems to be the style of prose used. The blurb inside the cover revealed that it was a story about four sisters haunted by a terrible secret. That turned out to be true (warning: this review does contain spoilers), but there was no triumph over the secret, as I had hoped.
Okay. I know I am approaching this novel from a distinctly Judeo-Christian viewpoint, not - as I learned in college - a Freudian, feminist, or Marxist viewpoint. So, already, maybe my expectations are different than the average reader. For example, while I acknowledge that child molestation does occur and it is a terrible crime against man and God, I don’t think that it needs to be graphically described for a reader. Because my faith colors my interpretation of all I encounter, I generally try to find the good in things. I admit I lean towards cynicism more than I should, but I strive to see something worth admiring in all art, music, literature, film…people. When considering something like this novel, that striving to see the good is definitely at odds with my faith. The only thing I found remotely redeeming in this book was the style of writing. Ms. MacDonald does write with a slightly musical, at times tongue-in-cheek prose that was enjoyable, if the story itself was not.
And what of the story? In a nutshell, (and, trust me, this is a bare-bones nutshell) a 16-year-old boy elopes with a 13-year-old girl in British Canada in the early 20th century. They have four daughters, one of whom dies an infant, and one who ends up unintentionally inspiring her father’s lust. He rapes her, impregnates her, and her mother kills her while saving her twin babies’ lives. One twin dies, accidentally drowned by his sister/aunt, who is six years old at the time. The father then molests the six-year-old daughter. The mother kills herself three days later, and the oldest surviving daughter steps up as the matriarch of the household. The father begins bootlegging alcohol and the community members shun him and his family. The daughter who accidentally drowned the baby grows up to be a stripper, cold-heartedly seducing a family man into impregnating her, and is then forced to give up her child to an orphanage. The youngest girl, who is the daughter/sister of the slain daughter, grows up having visions and nightmares of her dead brother. She is given the diary of her mother, learns that her mother had a lesbian lover in New York City, and goes to find and live with that woman, a jazz musician. The oldest sister grows up a bitter spinster who abuses school children. The stripper dies, but her forgotten son reunites with his aunt/sister and learns about his bizarre family tree. He nearly throws up. The end.
…how is this in any way inspirational or encouraging?
It’s twisted and sick, and that’s just the plot. What was even more disturbing to me was the utter lack of healthy relationships, any understanding whatsoever of religion or faith (all of the characters who professed to have any kind of faith were portrayed as gross caricatures, or as possessed by violent religiosity). There were absolutely no healthy, strong male characters in the novel. The main character was a child molester, a criminal, and an incestuous rapist. The beau of the second daughter ends up dumping her after getting another girl pregnant. The girls’ grandfather disowns them and treats his wife and daughters unkindly. The seduced man, although good at heart, allows himself to be deceived by a sixteen-year-old tramp. The tramp’s cousin kills his own father.
So, then, I thought that maybe this book was recommended by Oprah because of the strong female leads. I considered them. There was a 13-year-old girl who got married, sunk into a deep depression, then killed her daughter. Her daughter was an arrogant singer who engaged in an illicit lesbian affair and willfully deceived her parents. Her oldest sister was overly religious, a self-destructive martyr who grows up bitter and powerless. Her younger sister breaks out of the family by stripping at her cousins’ seedy bar and seduces a man whom she knows has a happy, healthy home life. Her youngest sister/daughter is manipulated by everyone who desires nothing more than for her to redeem the family. The lesbian lover poses as a man and starts a band, running away from, rather than coming to terms with her familial problems (including a drug-addicted mother).
Are these women to be admired? They are no more worthy of being role-models than any of the male characters are. In fact, though I desperately searched for a character or even a shred of a character that I could cling to as decent or good-willed, I could not.
This novel actually gave me bad dreams.
What was the author trying to say? That the sins of the father are birthed in his children? That our lives are pre-destined, looped in an endless, futile circuit of attempted escape? That villains are revealed in our mirrors each morning?
I have no idea.
Granted, I devoured it in about five hours because I desired to know how the story would conclude. Would the wicked father get just punishment? Would any of the daughters break free of their father’s curse and wind up in healthy relationships? Would any of them encounter a good male - or female! - role model? Would any of the characters find genuine solace and comfort in religion? Would any of the characters forgive themselves or each other?
Nope. Basically, the dad gets away with everything, ruining his daughters' lives.
I know that, in real life, loose ends are not always tied up in neat little bows in order for us to move on or make changes. If art mirrors life, then, yes, there should be many books, plays and symphonies that end unresolved, with lovers fighting, with a dead body, with a warped family tree.
But the kind of art that comes with no humbly offered solution, either injected subtly between the lines, or played out in trumpets across canvas or page, has no business being a part of my library.
I threw the book into the trash the night I finished it.
I was torn about posting this blog. I truly wanted to use my writing to inspire and uplift, and so I did not want to use it to really cut anyone or anything else down. But I realized that I still have every right to share what I have learned from a negative experience. What I learned has nothing to do with the author herself, or even She Who Recommended It. It's about being more careful about the things I choose to do with my time. It's about wasting less of it, and engaging in activities - including reading books - that build me up, rather than weaken or distress me. I wish I had learned much earlier in my life that it's not just about surrounding ourselves with things that bring life, joy, and health. It's about avoiding things that don't.
I need some fresh air, so to speak.