Angel by Laura Lee
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: GLBT Contemporary
Length: 200 pages
Summary: Itineris Press, the best in quality GLBT faith-based fiction, is proud to offer Angel by Laura Lee.
Since the loss of his lively, charming wife to cancer six years ago, minister Paul Tobit has been operating on autopilot, performing his religious duties by rote. Everything changes the day he enters the church lobby and encounters a radiant, luminous being lit from behind, breathtakingly beautiful and glowing with life. An angel. For a moment Paul is so moved by his vision that he is tempted to fall on his knees and pray.
Even after he regains his focus and realizes he simply met a flesh-and-blood young man, Paul cannot shake his sense of awe and wonder. He feels an instant and overwhelming attraction for the young man, which puzzles him even as it fills his thoughts and fires his feelings. Paul has no doubt that God has spoken to him through this vision, and Paul must determine what God is calling him to do.
Thus begins a journey that will inspire Paul’s ministry but put him at odds with his church as he is forced to examine his deeply held beliefs and assumptions about himself, his community, and the nature of love.
From the very beginning, Laura Lee warns you that this is not a standard romance. More literary and philosophical than most, pausing frequently to consider the ramifications of mountains as the high places of God, Angel tracks the spiritual and sexual journeys of a minister and a recovering alcoholic. No longer attached to a church, Paul Tobit gives us a glimpse of what is to come in the very prologue, where his small cabin at the base of Mount Rainier contains everything he needs, but that list does not contain Ian.
We meet Paul six years into his widowhood – he lost Sara, his wife, during their mid-thirties, and has been going through the motions since. Never the life of the party, Paul needed Sara's ebullience to effectively do his work. He loved her deeply and sincerely, and is genuinely startled to discover that he's intensely attracted to an "angel" that he sees in the church.
The angel is Ian Finnerty, a beautiful young man trying to leave his self-destructive path, come to the church for an AA meeting. Caught in the light, his ethereal appearance enchants Paul, who is truly shocked to find Ian is male. They embark on what is initially a mentor/protégé relationship that quickly becomes more, though how much more, they dare not disclose to the congregation. This sect holds to conflicting attitudes toward homosexuality – gays are to be welcomed into the community, but may not officiate; that's "inconsistent with Christian teaching."
The story is not precisely "gay for you" or even "out for you," but probably the most genuine expression of "love the specific person" I've read. Paul struggles with the categories, not thinking of himself as gay or bi, or even actually heterosexual. He's never questioned his desires before, apparently since he never needed to, fantasies being only fantasies. By book's end, he hasn't quite come to any conclusion but that he cannot stay in the ministry. Ian's more straightforward; he's definitely gay and the church he grew up in rejects him completely for it.
The men are very complementary, each teaching the other some important lessons. Paul helps Ian find his way to sobriety and back to God. Ian teaches Paul about love, questioning authority, and living fully. Ian's characterization was a little unusual in that he's spent most of his youth and early adulthood self-medicating away from reality with the booze, but now lives a very full and self aware life, without much consideration of why he turned to alcohol or what function it served for him.
The church and Paul's deceased wife are never far away from Paul and Ian; "Saint Sara" is almost more oppressive than centuries of dogma. Ian feels that she's on a pedestal, being a woman and dead, and that he can't compete. Paul can't quite shake his anger that Ian had a life before him, with sex that might or might not have been meaningful. Neither is quite secure in believing in his place in the other man's life, and then there's the church, that 800 lb disapproving gorilla.
The story is told in a distant third person, nearly omniscient viewpoint, separating reader and protagonists. The omniscience isn't quite complete, since it dips infrequently into Ian's head, more often telling us Paul's thoughts, memories, and backstory. The invisible narrator (it does not "feel" like Paul's mind) pauses often to muse on the nature of friendship, relationships, communities, other people's life stories, and more, before returning to the action at hand. The few times the story truly showed us their growth, such as the "decorate-the-Christmas tree" scene, came as a great narrative relief. The effect is very literary and a little dry, reminding us that the primary romance is between Paul and religion. Perhaps Ian's greatest gift to Paul is reminding him that God, religion, and the church are not one and the same.
Approach Angel as a literary quest and questioning of Christian attitudes to homosexuality and love, not as a romance, and it will be a more satisfying read; the story and Ian raise some extremely good points. 3.5 marbles