Controlling Shelly Fagan
Amazon categorizes Controlling Shelly Fagan as Women’s Religious Fiction, although I’d say it was more akin to the novels of authors such as LaVyrle Spencer and Danielle Steel. While it’s got a lot of heavy themes of faith and some positive interpretations of religion, there’s a lot in here that will likely make faith-based readers turn away from it.
The year is 1967, and seventeen-year-old Shelly Fagan’s parents driven to St. Francis, a convent school in Indiana, where they’re visiting her mother’s best friend, Sister Mary Margaret. But it turns out that Shelly is being left behind at the school; her parents know about the pregnancy that Shelly hasn’t confirmed and in fact is in denial over. Wanting to avoid the scandal associated with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Shelly’s politically ambitious parents plan for her to have the baby in secret, then finish her education and get her high school diploma. After that, they will figure out what the next step is. Shelly is heartbroken and begs not to be left behind, but remains sure that the father of her child, her motorcycle-riding rebel boyfriend, Chris Johnson, will rescue her.
Nineteen years later (which the book describes as the present day, when by my calculations it should be 1986), a much less audacious Shelly Gerard still hasn’t recovered emotionally from giving birth and the subsequent death of her child, a fact that no one besides Shelly, the convent’s occupants and her parents know about. Though she’s now a housewife and mother to two sons, she has never shaken the Saint Francis experience and still experiences panic, nightmares and anxiety as a result. When her twelve-year-old tells her his little league team is going to be headed to St. Francis for a game, anxiety swamps her; it will require her making contact with her parents, something she prefers not to do. Her husband Phillip is supportive; he knows her relationship with her parents is fraught, though he does not understand why.
When Shelly attends a beauty pageant where her mother is a judge, she is shocked to realize that the new Miss Indiana, Angela Collins, is definitely her – and Chris’ – daughter. Sister Mary Margaret and her mother lied about her baby’s death, but why? A visit to her home town brings her back in contact with Chris, and allows her to explore her brother Steven’s past while mourning his death during his military service. Can Shelly finally bury her brother and her relationship with Chris in their proper places in the past? And can Shelly ever overcome the abuse that was foisted upon her by those at the convent school?
Controlling Shelly Fagin has good and bad points, though sometimes it frustrated me. I kind of enjoyed its portrayal of imperfect Christians doing imperfect things, but unusually for Christian fiction, there’s a lot of sex between its pages, and Roman Catholicism does come in for some bashing. In the end, it’s hard to reconcile the book’s themes of solid faith with nuns who tie down pregnant teenagers and jab needles in their arms to drug them.
Shelly is a very compelling character. Strong but wounded, it takes her a while to finally regain her footing and her faith. When she does she’s unstoppable, and that makes her worth reading about. Chris and Phillip, too, are imperfect people stuck making hard choices that haven’t been the healthiest for them.
But the book’s romances are difficult to bond with. It was hard for me to invest in Shelly’s marriage to Phillip because Shelly makes it absolutely clear that Chris was the love of her life, and even though Phillip is sweet, cares about her anxiety, and is helping her raise a family, she’s clinging to memories of Chris, motorcycles and al fresco teenage sex. The book does take things between Chris and Shelly to the point of joyful, shameless infidelity, which is a subject that’s not going to sit comfortably with readers looking for any kind of romance, let alone an inspirational one. Shelly tries to excuse it by saying the hand-fasting Maria-and-Tony self-marriage she had with Chris was more holy than the Vegas wedding she had with Phillip which is, to be frank, ridiculous, because legality is legality and twelve-plus-year-old legal marriages are twelve-plus-old legal marriages. Phillip points that out and even the most romantically-inclined readers are going to be inclined to agree with him. And while Shelly seeks forgiveness from a priest who shares the same first name as her dead brother, it’s all a Bit Much To Take (so is the bit about the bear Shelly scares over a cliff, but that’s just a cherry on a contrived sundae).
The supporting characters are pretty wooden. Shelly’s mother is an arrogant social climber and the parts of the story that take us into her head have the worst instances of showing-not-telling, and attempts at rounding her out and softening her don’t really succeed. Shelly’s father is nothing more than an angry, cheating cipher. The plot naturally requires her to forgive them both for doing what they did to protect their reputations, but the forgiveness never feels genuine.
The plot has a number of problems as well. There’s an extremely heavy incestual subtext going on here – the narrative flat-out accuses Shelly of trying to relive the relationship she had with Steven through Chris because she hasn’t mourned her brother’s death. Considering the fact that she keeps having hot monkey sex with Chris, I certainly hope that’s not her ultimate motivation. Angela is introduced into the story and Shelly never even tries to reach out to her. It might be awkward because she’s happy with her adoptive family, but it’s a plot thread that dangles in the air while Shelly has lots of sex with Chris. And it’s hard to square the book’s belief in spiritual faith, penance and total forgiveness of the church and its institutions with, y’know, the abusive nuns and blatant infidelity that Shelly’s not really sorry for even though she takes the sacraments. And considering the kind of torture Shelly underwent, the power of forgiveness even for the religiously inclined only stretches so far, though it’s true every person must walk their own walk with God.
The writing is stiff and formal, and there is a lot of showing instead of telling. Characters, for some reason, rarely use contractions, which make them sound like they’re speaking lines in a school play. There are also weird omniscient narrative stretches where the author explains the character’s motives, and minor characters pop up to speechify morality play opinions.
Controlling Shelly Fagan has some really interesting ideas and an interesting heroine. But it also has a number of issues that will likely keep it from reaching many keeper shelves.
Buy it at: Amazon
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