Friday, June 8, 2012

Romance Novel: The Garden of Happy Endings, Author: Barbara O'Neal

I recently had the pleasure of reading Barbara O'Neals latest book, The Garden of Happy Endings. It is so good, y'all. It really moved me. I urge you to put it at the top of your tbr pile.

I had very passionate reactions to parts of it. Not negative reactions in the sense that I don't like what she wrote or how she wrote it, but rather I simply disagree with her premises or the conclusions her characters come to, in some places.

I wanted to write about it but I didn't want to offend Ms. O'Neal or negatively impact her sales in any way. It seems silly to think that my little blog could do that, but, just in case, I wrote to Barbara on facebook.

This is my facebook message and her generous, gracious response.

"Barbara - I was profoundly moved by The Garden of Happy Endings. I highly recommend it. As a feminist and an atheist, it stirs things in me that I really want to address but I don't know how without spoilering. I would never disrespect you. My question is - if I wrote a blogpost and shelved it for a while - how long would I need to wait before posting it? 6 months? Not that I have enough readers to effect your sales but I would hate it if I did."

"Barbara Samuel-O'Neal Judy, please go ahead and write your blog. Make plain at the start that there are spoilers, but please pour your passion into that blog before it dissipates. Discussion is powerful, even if you object to everything I wrote. Books are a dialogue, and I'm honored that you're moved. Let me know the link when you write it."

I already loved her but after that response, I love her even more. This is her fourth book under O'Neal. She also has many under Barbara Samuel and Ruth Wind.

So here goes - let's do the spoiler thing:


First of all, one might think this is a strange book for an atheist to read to begin with. It tells you very clearly on the back that it's about a reverend in a small community and her crisis of faith. So why did I read it? Because I've read many of Ms. O'Neal's books and I knew she would take me places I wanted to go and the scenery on the way would be compelling and beautiful. She did, and it was.

Surprisingly, my biggest objections aren't religious, they're feminist.

This woman, whom you will come to love, Elsa Montgomery, becomes a reverend because she can not become a priest. In fact, as an innocent fourteen year old girl, she plays at being a priest in the sanctuary and is caught by the priest who calls her a 'dirty daughter of Eve' and hits her.

She leaves the sanctuary and ends up being comforted by Joaquin, the boy who will become her fiance. Comforted in the sense that they have sex, which makes me not like Joaquin.

It later becomes important that Joaquin had a visit from an angel at age eight.

Fast forward some years and Joaquin and Elsa are walking the Camino; a sacred path that leads to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. They are engaged and have been for eight years.

Joaquin again sees his angel for the second time at a stop they make along the way. When they reach the Camino, Joaquin announces his decision to become a priest, devestating Elsa.

This infuriates me. Why? He could have chosen to serve god through a different religion. One that allows him to have a wife. And why in hell would he serve a religion that treated someone he loves so very abusively?

Another thing that infuriates me is the angel thing. Joaquin sees an angel at eight and again before becoming a priest. He has measles at eight and he's deciding to be a priest later.

Elsa always wants to see an angel. Eventually she does. But the price she pays is horrendous. A young woman in her congregation is brutally raped and murdered before Elsa sees an angel. And she doesn't recognize him as an angel for some time.

Then Elsa herself is raped while trying to save another woman. This, too, warrants a visit from angels. At the same time Joaquin is safely at home getting his third visit from an angel who tells him to go find Elsa.

So Joaquin gets angels through almost no suffering on his part. Elsa, on the other hand, has to see a young girl raped and killed and be raped herself before any angels deign to visit her. Who the hell needs that kind of angels?

What if it were the other way around? What if Joaquin witnessed a boy raped and murdered and was raped himself? Much more horrible, right? Why?

And this is written by a woman. Even women can not give other women the easier life.

Then there is the god thing. Elsa turns her back on god three times. The last time being when the sweet, innocent young girl is tortured, raped and murdered. Elsa knows that the girl must have begged god for help and her prayers went unanswered.

I have heard so many justifications for why this could happen in a world where there is a god. I don't buy any of them. If there were a god or a designer so intelligent that she/he/it created this world, that same designer/god would have been intelligent enough to make this world happen without rape, murder, child abuse or neglect. The very fact those things happen is one proof there is no such god / designer.

And I don't understand why people are so scared to let go of the idea of them. Life makes so much more sense and is so much more enjoyable when you aren't seeing it in terms of why would god / designer let this happen, or what would god / designer want you to do.

There is a statement towards the end of the book that I love.

"It came to her that there would always be evil in the world, that there would be error and doubt and loss and things that could not be explained, but there would also be hope and goodness and kindness and love." The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O'Neal

A completely true statement, IMHO, and having nothing whatsoever to do with god.

Thank you Barbara, for so graciously letting me express myself. I disagreed with some things but I certainly did not "object to everything" you wrote.

As is true with all your books, the story was compelling and the scenery was delightful. You never disappoint.

Now I just have to convince myself once again that I'm not wasting my time writing since I can never write as well as you.


  1. Erm, how am *I* going to do with this one? Being all flagrantly pagan-y and shit?

    I adore you and Barbara, both!

    Also, I LIVE for spoilers. Require them, you might even say.

  2. Julie - I think you're going to love it because it is essentially exploring spirituality. I suspect you will love the questions that it raises. You will probably have answered a lot of them for yourself already and differently than the people in the book, but you will enjoy it. And, of course, it's Barbara creating the world and telling the story / stories.

  3. Well! This week I was reading some feminist topics this week that were very much along these lines. How women characters often have to go through horrible suffering in order to gain powers, or so that the male character can gain something. Bleh.

    As for the god thing... I don't think a belief in a god equates thinking about why God would do x or y. But... whole other conversation! :-)

    1. London Mabel - There is such a good exploration of these things in the book. You'd enjoy it, I think.

  4. During a discussion with a friend the statement was made "God was created to fulfill two facets of human nature - Blame and Gratitude and religion for the same reasons. There are so many wars and personal detachments in the world and so many are based on God and religion. One would almost think they were both created by Satan."

    In submitting to those thoughts, it would be easy to see why Joaquin chose to become a priest...

    1. Sounds like you've read the book. Did you like it?

  5. FWIW..I love everything Barbara writes, and I HATED the last part of the book where Elsa is raped. It struck me as gratuitous - why rape of all things? Couldn't she just have been beaten up or injured some other way? Why rape? I didn't get it for many of the same reasons you objected - and to have it be a sex/violence crime of all things that brought her the angels...anyway, still absolutely love Barbara...more joy in reading her work than anyone I can think of. Just didn't "get" this particular work in the end.

    1. Kimberly - In the next comment Barbara explains that Elsa wasn't raped. Rereading the scene I could see how it isn't actually stated that she is, although I got that from it the first time as well.
      I'm not sure we were supposed to get it so much as be moved to think. I certainly was.

  6. She wasn't actually raped. I was careful about that. She is the angel in the scene, offering herself to protect the other girl. She is "the hands of God" in that moment. Which is the thing she most needs to regain her true faith. I also felt that the angels were around her all the time. She just needed to let go and be able to see them.

    And I hope it's all right if I respond to this post, as the writer, to offer some of my reasons for writing it the way that I did. I am also a feminist, and the church is one of the last bastions of extreme patriarchy. I actually love Catholicism, but not this aspect, and that was what I wanted to explore--what do you do as a Catholic woman who has a calling? The losses she experiences are not gratuitous, they are very common losses for women, even in an emerging feminist world. Which is the point.

    As for Joaquin and his suffering or not suffering--in my view he really suffered the loss of Elsa, and the point was to illustrate that he would have been a good priest, married with a family. I wanted to portray a good priest, an honorable priest, because the Church has had so many black eyes, and it sullies the names of good men who serve honorably.

    This was a big challenge for me, this book. I fought it for several months until I finally had to just give in and let it be written through me, doing the work that was mine to do in that stretch of time. I am a woman of faith, but I also believe in many paths to the divine, and it seemed that it was time I wrote about that. I knew some of my readers would be upset or challenged or dismayed by it, and that had to be okay. I have no need to convert anyone to any path, but I needed to write about my thoughts on the subject.

    I am deeply grateful for your comments, Judy, and your passionate response. Thank you for your honesty and the chance to have a dialogue about this. I am never offended by an honest response, positive or negative.


    1. I'm honored that you replied. Thank you.
      As to Joaquin, I definitely think you illustrated that he would have been a good priest, even married with a family. And he definitely came across as a good priest and a good man. The price for his priesthood was the loss of what he had with Elsa and he shouldn't have had to pay it. Nor should she.
      Thanks for clarifying the rape thing. And as to the angels always being around her, that's a very sweet thought.

  7. I just bought it for my kindle. Sounds fascinating.

  8. I haven't read Barbara's books. But I might one day as Sarah Addison recommended this book. I had an angel visit me from age birth every single night until age 11. There is a reason why the visits stopped at age 11. I had a very frightening childhood. I was never raped but my life was often such that I hid in my bedroom closet. The angel told me on my last visit that she would be back for me. She was pure light. Not angels like the books tell you. I called her she. No real sex. Applaud anyone who will put the concept of child rape in a book. It is going on daily in every shape and way. And we do nothing. Suffer not the little children. And Earth is not under the dominion of any God, Goddess, Spirit. Evil can fall on all. Evil is real. Children are so helpless and vulnerable. And yet, we have no safeguards for them. Any idiot is allowed to conceive. Maybe China has the right idea. At least what children they are allowed are cherished. I support feminism, atheist,all lifestyles that spread only love. But I could not get up in the morning if I did not believe in a higher power. In fact, I probably would not be here today.

    1. Whatever works for whoevers working it. :)