Mary Madison experienced a childhood filled with the horrors of unspeakable abuse. For many years, she felt lost and alone in the system until one day a man came into her life, leading her to hope and redemption through a relationship with God. More than two decades after her life first spiraled out of control, she is now a respected member of the Washington D. C. community, equally at home with both the political elite and women whose lives resemble her own. As the director of a group of shelters for abused women, she spends her days counseling the ladies who come through her doors in desperate need of help just like she once was. Her latest client is Emma Johnson, a young woman who is addicted to drugs and has been badly abused by her boyfriend. Mary feels led by God to share with Emma the nightmarish story of her past and eventual redemption, believing that God will use it to work a miracle in Emma's own life. Gradually Emma begins to see herself in Mary's account, but will Mary get the opportunity to finish relating her tale before Emma takes drastic steps to make her pain end?
I kicked off my 2023 reading with Karen Kingbury's Divine, a stand-alone, inspirational, women's fiction story. Mary Madison is the director of a group of women's shelters in Washington, D.C. and a nationally known advocate for various causes, mostly related to helping women who've been abused. She, herself, grew up with a troubled mother who was addicted to drugs and worked as a prostitute. Then when Mary was only ten, she was abducted and sold into sexual slavery. From there, her life continued a downward spiral with only rare rays of hope breaking through, until she found a relationship with Jesus a decade later. Now she believes it's her mission in life to share her story with others to help them find redemption, too. Her latest client is Emma Johnson, a young mother who's been badly abused by her boyfriend and has nowhere else to turn. As Mary relates her story to Emma, she hopes that Emma will see herself in it and gradually come to the realization that God can rescue her, too.
Mary and Emma are the two main characters in the story. For a decade, between the ages of roughly ten and twenty, Mary's life was filled with abuse and other bad things happening to her, some of which were a result of bad choices she made. I can't say much more about her life without giving away major spoilers, but suffice it to say that things don't really turn around for her until she accepts Jesus into her heart. In the decade since then, she's earned a doctorate degree in family counseling and has opened several women's shelters in the D. C. area. She now believes it's her calling to share her story with the women who come through the shelter's doors to help them find their redemptive moment, too. Emma lost her father as a baby and grew up with a single mother. She went through a rebellious stage as a teenager, getting mixed up in drugs and sex, eventually ending up living with a man who has severely abused her. The most recent time he beat her, she decided that she could no longer stay with him, and sought out help at one of Mary's shelters. Mary personally takes her on as a client, and gradually relates her story to Emma, in hopes of helping her.
I have to say that I was left pretty frustrated by the characterizations. Despite the entire book basically being about these two women, I never really got much of a sense of either of their personalities or who each of them are as individuals. I suppose it could be said that Mary was strong to have survived all that she did, and I suppose she must care about people to want to help other abused women. Emma seems to be a caring mother to her two small daughters, and before she hit her rebellious phase, she was a good daughter to her own mother. But beyond this, I just didn't relate to either of them well, because there isn't much to grasp onto. I felt like before finding Jesus, both were basically defined by their abusive situations and bad choices, and after finding Jesus, they were defined merely by their relationship with Him. Mary also gained fame and political connections, which I guess was supposed to show how far God had lifted her up since her early life, but honestly these things didn't do much for me. I would have related to her better if she was simply a humble woman who we got to see working in the trenches beside the prostitutes and abused women on the streets. In fact, her political activism rubbed me the wrong way, because the book opens with her giving a speech to members of Congress on why they should renew funding for an abstinence program, where she's spouting off statistics on how much the program has reduced teen pregnancies and STDs. There are numerous articles and studies that have shown that abstinence only programs actually have the opposite effect because youth aren't learning prevention tactics, so the only way it's been proven effective at all is when used in conjunction with comprehensive sex education. So right out of the gate, I felt like Mary wasn't entirely honest or trustworthy. Then there's Emma who experiences deafening voices in her head. I wasn't sure what this was supposed represent. Was it was the devil, or was she schizophrenic (although she didn't seem to be mentally ill), or was she merely depressed? The latter seems to be the most likely scenario, but I've experienced depression for most of my life and have been know to have internal monologues, but they've never been like hers, where's she's talking to herself in the third person. Rather than having deeper introspection so that I could understand what she was feeling, I instead felt like I was being beat over the head with her "voices." In the end, neither woman had any sort of distinct personality that shone through for me.
Ultimately, though, what frustrated me the most about the main female characters in the story, which includes Mary, Emma, and both their mothers, is that they're all basically TSTL, making some of the dumbest choices I've ever seen from book characters, and trust me, there have been some doozies in my lifetime of reading. Usually, though, it's only once or twice per book, while in this one, it was nearly constant. Part of this is because their motivations are murky at best and non-existent at worst. I know that some of it is being driven by their respective pasts that are full of abuse and tragedy, but again, I've experienced my fair share of trauma and I don't think I've ever made decisions that are quite as out there as some of the ones they made. Leaving your kid with with a drug dealer (maybe pimp) who has made sexualized comments about her? Oh, the folly! Stealing a car and running from the cops because you think they're going to take you back to an abusive situation, when your only previous experience with cops was them saving you from a abusive situation? How does that make any sense? Nearly prostituting yourself as a supposed act of rebellion against your strict guardians? What in holy heck?! Getting into a car with a strange man who promises you money and a "legit" job, when the only experiences you've really had with men are them using you? Oh, save me from this insanity! Practically every decision these ladies made was this stupid, so these are just a few of the most prominent examples. My best guess is that the author was trying to show that people who don't know Jesus make bad choices (which in and of itself is a problematic argument, because I personally know non-Christians who don't make crazy choices like this, and I've known professing Christians who did), but when Mary made yet another terrible decision that nearly got her killed right after accepting Jesus, I metaphorically threw up my hands and was done.
In addition to the weak characterizations and murky character motivations, there were also numerous plot holes, as well as things that seemed to happen merely for the sake of the narrative the author was trying to create. When she's ten and right before she's abducted, Mary's Grandma Peggy gives her a small red beaded purse, which becomes her touchstone throughout the story, keeping a tiny ray of hope alive for her over the coming years. Inside the purse, her grandmother places a piece of paper on which she's written a Bible verse and a loving note. However, Mary can't read and surely Peggy must have known that since she read books to her. While a sweet gesture that does help Mary, I couldn't figure out why Peggy, knowing how unreliable her daughter was, didn't include something practical as well like her phone number and address so that Mary could reach her anytime if she was lost or in trouble. But of course, if she had, there wouldn't have been much of a story. After Mary was taken, Peggy is said to have never given up on searching for her, but she apparently didn't think to submit Mary's photo (surely she must have had one) and information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The police and social worker didn't check the center's database when she was finally found either. Ugh! Instead Mary and her grandma spend many more years apart, all because Mary supposedly can't remember her last name when she's finally rescued, which I thought stretched the bounds of credibility. If she'd been younger maybe, but at ten, most kids have a pretty good sense of self and don't seem likely to forget their own name. Mary's first good foster parents are conveniently only licensed for short-term care, and her social worker is also conveniently not available when things go south with her second set of foster parents. She's also said to have been promiscuous with boys while in juvenile detention, but I'm not sure how that would happen on any kind of regular basis given that I'm pretty sure juvie is segregated by gender just like adult prisons. I could go on and on with things that happened to simply drive the narrative toward the author's preconceived conclusion, but I'll leave it here. Suffice it to say, though, that instances like these were peppered throughout, often making me roll my eyes at the lazy storytelling that seemed to rely on nothing but a long string of deus ex machina moments.
As part of the inspirational fiction genre, I'm sure Divine was intended to be an inspiring story, but I personally found it to be one of the most depressing books I've ever read. And that's saying a lot because I've read a number of books with similarly tortured characters that never left me feeling like this one did. It's morose, humorless, and I couldn't help feeling like the author was sadistically torturing pretty much every character in the story. I read large parts of it with a heavy heart and a pit in my stomach, just waiting for something truly positive to happen, and even nearly a day after completing it, I was still feeling depressed and anxious. I generally read for entertainment and escapism, not to be tormented. I think the reader is supposed to come away with the message that Jesus is always there for us no matter what, but when bad things continued to happen even after Mary had accepted Him, it was just too much. Even the ending was depressing with Mary losing her last family connection far too soon, and the only potential romantic relationship she's ever had never materializing because they were both too married to their work for God in different parts of the world. I didn't understand this at all, because as Christians, we believe that love is from God, so if two people love each other, wouldn't God want them to be together and happy? Couldn't they do God's work together? I think we were also supposed to find inspiration in Mary's rise to fame, professional success, and political connections, but for me all those things are fleeting and ring hollow. Show me a woman who has numerous friends who love her and would do anything for her because of her kindness and generosity. Show me all the abused and downtrodden women she's helped at her shelters who are giving back because of her example. Show me a woman who is actually counseling clients not just retelling her own torturous story over and over, which felt masochistic and/or narcissistic to me. In fact, this was a huge problem I had with the book in general: too much telling and not enough showing.
Divine was my first read by Karen Kingsbury. In all honesty, I primarily picked it up based on the recommendation of a family member who is a huge fan of this author, but if this is a prime example of her storytelling, I think it may not be for me. I have several more of her books on my TBR pile, either picked up cheaply at library sales or gifted to me by said family member, but after this generally depressing, frustrating, and traumatic reading experience, I doubt I'll be bothering to check out any more of them. Given the overwhelmingly positive reviews for this book and the author's others at both GoodReads and Amazon, I'm clearly in the minority, but I did find a few other reviewers who agreed with me, at least in part. I also freely admit that although I do identify as Christian, I don't read a lot of so-called Christian literature, so perhaps I'm just not in the target audience. All I know is that despite my love of stories where characters overcome abusive pasts or other traumas and tragedies, this book did not resonate with me at all. It just made me feel like throwing it against the wall and also left me with a two-day depression that I had to dig myself out of. Bottom line: If you're looking for a book in the inspirational genre with a tortured heroine who's been through an experience similar to Mary's but that has a gentler, less preachy message, and a much more positive outcome, try Francine Rivers's Redeeming Love, which is a far superior book IMHO.
Trigger Warning: This book contains a substantial amount of content relating to domestic abuse, sexual assault, kidnapping, child abuse, drug abuse, and suicidal ideation. Although most of it is not rendered graphically, all of these things could still be disturbing for sensitive readers or those who've experienced these issues firsthand.
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