God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Contemporary
Your Local Book Store, Amazon
What do you do when your entire family is perfect, but you’re 18 and confused? For Caroline Nolan, in God Spare the Girls, it’s an especially complicated question because her father is Luke Nolan, pastor of a megachurch in Texas. Her mother Ruthie is the perfect matriarch, calm and always perfectly coiffed. Worst of all, is her older sister Abigail, her father’s favorite for her piety and devotion. He rose to national prominence when his purity promise sermon went viral; a sermon he’d written with the help of Abby that led to the founding of his church and a million 15-year-old girls having purity promise ceremonies. The problem is that Caroline isn’t as devout as her sister. She wants nothing more than to get out of their small town and go to college. It’s a shock then when a private matter becomes public and the standards Caroline has been held to crumble, taking with them the foundation of her world.
While Caroline grapples with her own sexuality and her faith, 24-year-old Abby is preparing to be married in a month’s time. The news of their father’s transgression subjects them to even greater public scrutiny so the sisters decide to move out to the cattle ranch left to them by their grandmother. There Caroline hopes to find answers not just to herself, but to her sister, whom she’s certain is marrying for all the wrong reasons. At a more fundamental level, she wants to recapture the closeness they once had and to be seen by the person she looks up to the most.
God Spare the Girls appears to be a straightforward novel about faith and family, but days after finishing the novel I was still thinking about it. In this world where fluidity and diversity are becoming the norm, it’s startling to read a novel with so many boundaries and rules. Virtually every aspect of life for Caro and Abby is controlled. They wear abstinence rings proclaiming their virtue, clothing must be modest, alone time with boys not possible, obedience to their parents absolute. The situation with their father strains Caro’s loyalty, but Abby continues, despite having a greater stake in the situation than Caro does. It’s startling, but as written by McKinney there are so many layers to each of these young women that labels don’t stick.
Still, it won’t come as a surprise that I found identifying with Caro to be significantly easier than with Abby. I’m acknowledging, right up front, that patriarchal religions and things like purity promises make me nutty, given that the burden for virtue falls solely on females. The case is no different here. The Nolan women are responsible for swallowing the sins of the father because his “work” is godly. I can’t wrap my mind around that kind of logic, but McKinney presents it at a point in the story where she’s so clearly established Ruthie’s belief system, it’s not surprising. It’s how her daughters come to terms with it that matters.
In her bio, author Kelsey McKinney acknowledges being raised evangelical in Texas. This goes a long way towards explaining the tone of the novel. She masterfully builds a world that feels as real to the reader as it is to her characters. Biblical passages and Baptist doctrine are introduced without being jarring. The story may be foreign to those not raised evangelical, but she provides a multitextured look into a contemporary world ruled by religion and the patriarchy. Which is not to say this is promotional reading; chapters raise probing questions about various issues including Biblical interpretation, the problematic treatment of women, and the petty side of church culture is often evident. But it’s done with respect, with a sense of great care, and is only part of what makes the novel such rewarding reading. God Spare the Girls is kaleidoscopic storytelling, each turn of the page providing a different outlook. And even though I wish it had ended differently, I highly recommend it.
If you’d like similar fiction about a religious upbringing, I recommend The Book of Essie.
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This sounds incredible. I love your thoughtful review!
Thank you! I think you’d really enjoy this one.
I agree it needed more of an ending … it is a bit abrupt! could’ve done more with the ending
I also wanted it to end differently, but I appreciate why she went the way she did.
Mary Ellen Garde says
I didn’t see this until after I wrote my comment. Glad I wasn’t alone. I’d love to know why the author made the choice she did here!
And i didn’t see this comment until after I replied to the first one! I don’t know why the choice, but I appreciate that maybe because it’s ‘real’? That there’s a component to faith I don’t understand.
Mary Ellen Garde says
Spoiler Alert – do not read if you haven’t finished this fabulous book!
I was having the hardest time remembering where the recommendation for this book came from so I was relieved when I googled book club questions and your review popped up! Now I know (and I’m really going to try to do a better job of noting where book rec’s come from in the future) I should have guessed it was you since we have a nice Venn Diagram of books we enjoy. I LOVED this book right up until the end. I am still pondering just what exactly happened to these women as they move forward. Did you have any “checks in your spirit” about the way it ended or is it just me? I don’t need all my books tied up in a tidy bow but I did want more… especially for Abigail. Again, thank you for your thoughtful reviews and for being a reviewer I can trust!
You’re so welcome! I had the same feeling about the book’s ending, which I hinted at in my review. I think we’re talking about exactly the same thing. I wanted so much more for Abigail. Her choice felt like she was still following her father.
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I read this book on your recommendation but was really disappointed in the writing. It could have been written by a high school student tasked with using descriptive words. I was going to scream if I had to read about them drinking coffee one more time. This was a flop for me.
Sorry to hear that. I generally dislike repetitive writing, but don’t remember that.