Heaven Can Wait, by Cheryl St. John

16 May

The pressure of commitment!

Being almost too late for this month’s TBR Challenge, I quickly checked the mountains and piles and shelves of unread books for something appropriate—a book published before 2000. After a few frantic moments—have I really read all my old skool books already???—I found the perfect tome. I give you:

Heaven Can Wait, by Cheryl St. John

This is Ms St John’s second published novel, prequel to Rain Shadow¹. Both novels were published by Harlequin Historical back in the dark ages (1994).

Please be warned that there’s a lot of religion as part of the story, though not in the way that usually annoys the bejesus out of me.

The novel is set in 1888 Pennsylvania. The heroine, Lydia Beker, is a member of the historical religious commune known as the Harmony Society. The hero, Jakob Neubauer, is also of German descent, but a farmer, one of the Outsiders whose heathenish ways the Colonists abhor.

This premise would be conflict enough for me, to be honest—how do you reconcile such different views of the world? It’s all good and well to long for freedom from drudgery, but the cultural shock would still be there, even if Jakob is not rich and life on a farm is no ride on the park with grooms and maids in attendance.

Ms St. John, however, added extraneous conflict in the form of a mentally unstable sister-in-law who is obsessed with Jakob.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is the back cover blurb:

Paradise

In her secret heart, sheltered Lydia Beker yearned for more—a sea of sensation, a husband to be tender with. Surely such longings couldn’t be wrong? And then came Jakob Neubauer, an outsider who promised her a world of passion…

One simple dream sustained Jakob: to work his land and build a life with the perfect woman at his side. Lydia Beker, unaffected and so serenely beautiful, seemed the embodiment of his every desire. But would he prove himself a man worth of such a precious gift?

Twenty year old Lydia lives in Accord. Her father is an elder in a fictional offshoot of the Rapp/Harmony sect. Accord is not so much a town as it is a colony/commune, where everything belongs to the community and nothing to the individual. As an adult woman, Lydia is expected to marry soon, or else move to on of the women’s dormitories. Either way, her life will continue to revolve around fulfilling the tasks assigned to her, regardless of preference or desire. At present, she is a baker, working alongside her mother in the colony’s bakery.

But Lydia has never truly felt at peace with her lot in life. Through the years only her beloved, frail grandmother, has perceived the secret rebellion alive in Lydia’s heart, her yearning for a freedom she can barely envision, let alone hope to attain.

Jakob is a farmer, the third son of Jonah Neubauer. The Neubauers work hard and are relatively prosperous. Orphaned as young teens, they continue to live in the family house as they married. Franz, the eldest, is married to a local girl and lifelong friend, Annette. Anton, not being able to find a local girl to marry, had advertised for a wife in a Pittsburg newspaper a few years earlier. His wife, Peine, is vain and fairly useless—and, as said above, obsessed with Jakob.

All his life, Jakob has dreamed of having a life for himself. Building a house and marrying a woman he can love. For a while, after the dead of his childhood sweetheart, he had forgotten his dreams, but meeting Lydia has changed everything for him.

I loved, loved these two characters. The moments where they connect with each other despite the cultural chasm between them are just beautiful.

They both have insecurities, regarding their own worth in the other’s eyes, and regarding their understanding of the other’s feelings. They have fallen for each other, but they don’t know each other—and given the time period and setting, this makes absolute sense. There was no way Jakob could have courted Lydia and talked with her about…well, anything at all. So their tentativeness around each other, warring with their mutual infatuation, rings absolutely true.

When he asks for her hand but refuses to become a member of the society, Lydia is devastated. Her father is adamant, unbending and unforgiving, and when she finally chooses to marry Jakob despite his clear disapproval, he coolly disowns her. Not only does he strip her identity from her, taking away the only things that would have been Lydia’s—her Mitgift, her dowry: a few cherished heirlooms passed from mother to daughter—but he purposefully taints Jakob perception of her, planting seeds of insecurity:

“She’ll be obedient and meek, because it is our way, but she’ll never share your crude desires. She will be revolted.” (pg 54)

On their wedding night, Jakob is torn. He is physically attracted to Lydia, as much as he is intrigued by her. He is almost desperate to make her happy, yet is afraid to hurt her, to disappoint her—to disgust her. A virgin himself, how can he guide and teach Lydia?

“Jakob hesitated, afraid of making a wrong move. The man was supposed to lead, to have confidence. He was almost certain she knew nothing of what was to happen. It was up to him to put her at ease and pave the way for her acceptance, but what did he know? The weighty responsibility clashed with desire that had escalated all day; his mind and body dueling for victory. He had to learn to be a husband. It was imperative they get off to a good beginning. He swallowed again, and wished he could see her face, tell her with his eyes how he felt. Words could never lend the emotion he wished to convey.” (pg 90)

A couple of pages later:

“What do you want me to do?”
“Whatever must be done.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I am prepared.”
“But you are shaking.”
“So are you.” (pg 93)

*melt*

Further complicating things are Lydia’s own religious beliefs. She may have felt out of place among her people and constrained by the rigidity of their beliefs, but after twenty years of having those same beliefs pounded into her consciousness, Lydia struggles with her feelings towards Jakob. She desires him—but lust is a sin! She doesn’t want to disappoint him, she wants him to admire her—but pride is sinful! She wants to fit in among his family—but their ways are foreign and heathenish, actively seeking idleness and foolish pastimes that are neither productive nor meaningful.

As the story progresses, so does the couple’s physical intimacy. There is a gentleness to the writing in those scenes that moves me. It is not only that nothing is terribly explicit—though there is no closed door or fade to black there. It is more that Ms St. John is as careful with her characters as they are with each other.

Just for these scenes and these characters I could have adored this book. Their internal conflicts, along with the cultural clash, both handled so deftly by Ms St. John, are just right. Perfect, as it were.

Unfortunately, we do have that other plot thread—Peine, the crazy s-i-l². As Lydia and Jakob start to know each other, with him trying his best to help her adapt to such a shockingly new environment—a society in which men and women mingle socially in public, in which children are not only allowed but encouraged to play! A society in which prayer is not the center around which life revolves—Peine is the obviously poisonous snake in the grass.

Way too obvious, if you ask me: not three pages into the story, Peine’s jealousy and obsession are revealed to the reader, so there isn’t even a hint of suspense there. Even worse, Peine’s disdain for Lydia and obsession with Jakob are evident to the other characters, up to and including Anton, who is also suspicious of Peine’s accounts of her life before marrying him.

I hated every single scene with Peine or told from her point of view. This character utterly ruined this book for me.

On the one hand, we have the careful and measured development of Lydia’s and Jakob’s relationship, with fully developed characterizations. On the other, we have a two dimensional, ham fisted villain providing entirely unnecessary external conflict. These two things really don’t belong together.

And so I’m once again torn. How to grade this novel? What I liked about it, I truly loved. What I didn’t liked, I really really really didn’t like.

Can I give a book a dual grade? 9 for Lydia and Jakob’s story, 2 for Peine’s presence in the book?

No?

Oh, alright, have it your way: Heaven Can Wait gets a 6 out of 10 *grumpy*

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

¹ Which obviously means that now I have to find a copy of Rain Shadow—there’s no way I can go on without it. Nope, no can do.

² Peine is not just crazy. The daughter of a prostitute, she has grown into a pyromaniac murderess with a hatred for religious people.

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2 Responses to “Heaven Can Wait, by Cheryl St. John”

  1. Christina Hollis 28/07/2012 at 9:40 AM #

    I’ve just stumbled upon this, and loved the extract. Reading about a virgin hero is quite a departure for me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What’s up with this? « Her Hands, My Hands - 02/06/2012

    […] The truly funny thing–to me, at least–is that 99.9% of it lands in my review of Cheryl St. John’s Heaven Can Wait. […]

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