A few days ago I had the opportunity to be part of a discussion group about The Bishop's Wife as part of a women's retreat. I thoroughly enjoyed the lively conversation about the book and the topics it touches and have to credit several of the thoughts in this review to that experience.
Linda's husband has been called to be the bishop, or lay leader, of their congregation. This requires an enormous commitment of time and energy, and Linda feels the strain of supporting her husband and missing him at the same time. Only the youngest of her five boys is still at home finishing high school, and she primarily fills her time with baking goodies and serving other ward members as "the mother of the ward."
When Carrie Helm, one of the women in the ward, disappears, leaving behind her husband and beautiful little girl, Linda is concerned, especially as she starts to get troubling glimpses into Carrie's marriage to Jared. Then both Jared's father and Carrie's parents show up, and the situation gets more complicated. In the middle of this, Linda reaches out to comfort another woman in the ward, Anna, whose husband is on his death bed and keeping a terrible secret.
First of all, I appreciate a novel geared toward a general non-LDS audience that's populated with real Mormon characters, not practically perfect, or thinly veiled evil, or naively clueless caricatures. While some of the characters, especially several of the men, could have had more depth to them, most of the women were, I thought, well-rounded and I loved the developing friendship between Linda and Anna. Most of the time Harrison worked idiosyncrasies of LDS terminology and culture into the story unobtrusively, though occasionally her explanations dipped into didactic territory or jarred me out of the narrative.
The mystery itself I found less than plausible. And not even just because there end up being two fairly similar murders in close proximity to Linda. Some of her decisions seemed to be so far from what any normal thinking person would do in similar circumstances, and there were a couple of holes in the plot that were glaring to me. In addition, I thought the second murder was wrapped up too neatly with a child's long-buried but spontaneously recovered memory.
Even with all that, I like Linda. She loves her faith and its people, but refuses to shut her brain off and turn a blind eye to their faults. "Turning a blind eye can be dangerous" she warns her son. She embodies a live-and-let-live attitude about her beliefs stating "who am I to tell other people their faith is wrong and foolish? If I believe in God even a little, I've already passed into the area of the unscientific." But she still chafes against those who claim her same faith but have vastly different values. Listening to another character's misogynistic tirade, she thinks, "This wasn't my Mormonism...This had nothing to do with my Mormonism."
She recognizes that life isn't black and white, but infinite shades of gray; that most people are a complex combination of both good and bad; that "the human condition [is] being stupid"; that no one - and no church - is perfect. Some tough topics come up including how some women feel like "lesser persons" in the church, inequality in temple sealings between men and women, the "second-class" status of singles in the church, even some historical issues, but I think Linda addresses them fairly if not apologetically or with rose-colored glasses. Seeing choices in dichotomous terms of good and evil might simplify life, but as Linda muses, "mostly I thought it was just an excuse not to have to do the work that seeing shades of grey requires."
Despite being the bishop's wife, or perhaps partly because of it, Linda doesn't have many close friends and often feels lonely. I could relate. In a frank self-assessment she says, "I had grown up with three brothers, and had learned to talk as bluntly as they did. That didn't seem to endear me to other women. But it was also true that my personality was prickly, and that I tended to offend people easily."
A major theme of the book is a caution against placing too much stock in our own perceptions. Several times during the course of the book, Linda makes assumptions about others based on her first impressions that turn out to be inaccurate, but she acknowledges her mistakes and limitations. Likewise, she relates several experiences during which she or others are so sure that they were having a spiritual prompting, only to question that feeling later when events don't pan out well.
A friend of the author who was in our discussion group mentioned that this book is meant to be the first in a series of nine books. I have no idea what mysteries Linda will stumble on next, but it'll be interesting to see where the series goes.
*********************************The Bishop's Wife
by Mette Ivie Harrison
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