In her debut novel “The Girl Who Slept with God,” Val Brelinski hooks readers with an unsettling opening. “On the last day of August in 1970, and a month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Jory’s father drove his two daughters out to an abandoned house and left them there.”
Oren Quanbeck is not a hateful father, but a conservative evangelical scientist who exiles his two daughters after the oldest returns pregnant from a mission trip to Mexico. Grace insists that the baby’s father is Jesus. To save his family from shame, Oren sends them into hiding. The story is told through the eyes of Jory Quanbeck, who struggles with the restrictions of her family’s religion, her mother’s depression, her sister’s blind devotion and the fragile hope of a first love.
This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel is set in rural Idaho where the author spent her childhood. Jory and her sisters can’t dance, listen to music, wear makeup or pierce their ears. Like Jory, the author rebelled against these restrictions and was frequently banished from her home until she finally left of her own will at 17 years old. This book was completed after her parent’s death, and Brelinski says she hopes readers will see that even in the most complex relationships there is always the possibility of forgiveness.
Brelinski’s writing is poetic. A rainy night sky is “dark as a purple-black plum but pierced here and there by tiny fingerlings of light.” Her descriptions of Jory’s transformation from child to young adult are reminiscent of the way Judy Blume writes from inside a young woman’s head.
After a disastrous second day in her new school, Jory hides out in the bathroom. “Things seemed to be slipping beyond her control. Things that used to seem solid and firmly in place now became liquidy, all slippery and impossible to grasp — like those slidey, shape-shifting puddles of mercury that escaped from the glass thermometer she had dropped when she was little.” Everything has changed in Jory’s life and she’s unsettled by the fact that she continues to eat and breath and go to school as if nothing has happened.
Removing the girls from their home has a domino effect of disaster on the family. Oren’s insistence that everything will be OK and his increasingly desperate attempts to keep the family together are heartbreaking and frustrating. Left on their own, Jory and Grace are drawn together and pulled apart by their differences. Jory wants acceptance from her peers and excitement in her life, while Grace couldn’t care less about fitting in, and frustrates her younger sister with her weird clothes and enduring faith.
Jory is befriended by an older guy, Grip, who gives her the attention she craves. The tension mounts as Grip begins visiting the sisters and Jory is agonized as she feels his attention shift from one sister to the other. His heart is in the right place, but when he places the girls in danger, all the dominos come crashing down.
The strength of a family bond is at the heart of this story. In their struggle to protect, love and accept one another, the Quanbeck’s are faced with a devastating loss. Jory tells Grip, “We don’t really know what the other side (of the moon) looks like, the dark side. It’s there, but we don’t ever see it.” In “The Girl Who Slept with God,” the dark side is awakened, wrestled with, and realized.