God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Contemporary
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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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