The award-winning book If Only You Knew by Mags Storey is your typical Christian romance … with, perhaps, a dead guy. The mystery of what really happened is my favorite part. The rest grew on me, because Mags Storey had the courage to confront how messy love and faith can be.
“Perhaps I should have read something into the fact that when I first laid eyes on Sam some girl was yelling at him, and when I first met Kevin he nearly killed me.” This opening hook instantly reeled me in. Even with teen romance being the dominant focus, the next few pages likewise baited me. As a former unpopular teen, I understand the fireworks-at-first-sight fantasy. However, when both Sam and Kevin take a serious interest in heroine Joanna MacKenzie, I rolled my eyes. While popular girls may indeed have a guy on each arm, Jo seems too insecure about herself to believe the same could happen to her. And if she were captivating enough to have two guys simultaneously become interested in her, this former wallflower would have no interest in reading about her.
To make matters worse, Sam is a little weird. What guy chooses to not only befriend a girl he just met, but to also go out of his way to encourage her to date his opposition? This guy has just broken up with his girlfriend in an unpleasant and loud quarrel on the beach, but now is showing up on Jo’s doorstep almost every day. One could think he is just a broken-hearted puppy in need of comfort. Yet he listens to her innermost thoughts and secrets, debates faith with her, encourages her to like herself, helps her fix up a store, and takes her to places where she can catch Kevin’s attention. No, he’s not gay; he’s just a very nice guy.
Thankfully, when the romance becomes a little too unrealistic, there is still the mystery of the dead guy. When Jo attends a concert on the beach, she recognizes one of the musicians; problem is, he’s supposed to be dead. Even when Jo discovers through her snooping that Nate had survived being struck by a car a year ago, the mystery only deepens. Two strange men keep showing up. Sam believes they are a threat; Kevin tries to convince Jo she is being paranoid. None of Kevin’s other friends, who also know Nate, seem to want to talk about the attack. Even when men threaten Jo in the presence of Kevin, everyone still acts as if the attack never happened. The mystery kept my heart racing because it felt real and scary, but also took me a long time to unravel.
If Only You Knew is a Christian conversion novel. As such, Jo starts out as an unbeliever, with lots of doubts about God. She is also insecure and in desperate need of acceptance and love. Another main character, Sam, is a former church member, with doubts but also lots of antagonism towards believers. Both struggle with questions about the gospel. So far, none of this will be news to anyone who has read a conversion novel. Moreover, in labeling If Only You Knew a conversion novel, you should be able to guess the ending. This, then, is the number two reason that I didn’t think I would like it; the first reason being the seemingly simplistic romance. I am not sure who the intended audience is for conversion novels. Most often these books are found in religious stores, where most patrons already have accepted the truth of the gospel. Why do Christian novels relegate doubts and criticisms to the unbelievers? Are Christians really so secure in their faith?
To make matters worse, the religious storyline felt convoluted. “So tell me honestly, were you terribly disappointed when you realized that I was the one jumping in after you and not blond-tufty-God-boy?” Sam asks this question of Jo, after he rescues her from her fall off a pier. Sam hasn’t found a God worth believing in, nor does church work for him, which is why he puts down Kevin. Why then does Sam check out the religious concert on the beach and then attend other events held by the same church group? Sam tells Jo that his sister is really into church, will soon marry, and that the concert is being held by her church. Fair enough, I guess; the first time. How though does this explain his continued interest?
Here’s the kicker: Although I knew the eventual fate of Jo’s soul, I kept reading If Only You Knew because I wanted to know how the romance and the conversion would be resolved, much as one watches certain murderer-revealed-upfront mysteries to see how the bad guy will be caught. And a huge reason I wanted to know is because of how openly and honestly Mags Storey explored the messiness of love and faith. In struggling to decide which guy she loved, Jo faced a dilemma that I readily identified with: she had to pick not on the basis of which guy was the most handsome or charming guy but rather was the right guy for her. As for the conversion storyline, it too turned out to be much more complex than I expected. Mags Storey has referred to herself as a spiritual misfit, identifying with Thomas who told Jesus: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” All of her main characters, perhaps even more so her Christian ones, fit that description. As such, they voiced many doubts and convictions that I feel on a daily basis.
In reading some of the criticisms of If Only You Knew, I admire that Mags Storey had the guts to depict the Christians in her book as being flawed despite their faith. I have met too many people who have dropped out of the church due to feeling that they needed to have a perfect faith to be Christian. In If Only You Knew, Nate outwardly maintains a strong church leadership, while inwardly harboring anger and resentment. Kevin manages to hold it together during church services, but slips into old bad habits during the week. Even peppy Lisa has her insecurities. The only difference between them and Jo is that they turn to God during their highs and lows; not because they have it all together, but because they are believers. Too many Christian novels I have read have been about how unbelievers find perfect peace in God, rather than portraying the true messiness of imperfect people trying to live for God. These latter novels may exist, but if so I am not aware of them. This spiritual misfit looks forward to a time when even more books feature Christians as the ones wrestling with spiritual questions.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
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