Doubting Stephen

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TITLE: Doubting Stephen
AUTHOR: Anne Borrowdale
PUBLISHED: 2013
PUBLISHER: Ashton Pickering Publications
LENGTH: 286 pages
PROCUREMENT: Author
RELATIONSHIP TO AUTHOR: none

Doubting Stephen is a novel that begins with a surprising confrontation: Jill accuses her brother, Stephen, of raping her husband, Phil, and tells Stephen to leave the U.K. and never return. So, off to Australia Stephen goes, never to hear from his family again…until.

Borrowdale shifts time in her novel, heading into the past to show readers why one family has struggled so greatly with their beliefs for so long. Grandpa Brian and Granny Dee have two children, Jill and Stephen. When Stephen comes out, the ultra-religious parents and sister disown him. That is, until Granny Dee realizes she misses her son and wants to visit with him, setting up an opportunity to “run into him” in Vancouver. When Grandpa Brian realizes it’s a set-up (and that Stephen is there with his boyfriend), horrible words are exchanged and Stephen takes a swing at his old dad. This is where the family breaks the first time.

Years later, Jill and Phil’s daughter Georgina finds some of Granny’s old diaries after both grandparents have passed. Jill tells her daughter they must be burned–Granny insisted–but Georgina can’t help herself, saving the journals when her mom isn’t looking so she can read them later. It’s here that she learns more about her Uncle Stephen, a man whom she’s never met. It’s reading these diaries that set the whole family in motion. Ever since Stephen left for Australia, they’ve all been pretty stagnant: Jill and Phil are extremely religious. Their daughter Chali is, too, as is her husband Richard and his sister Eleanor. Georgina and her boyfriend Jason are not religious, but are homeopaths and crystal healers, which the book is obviously paralleling to another kind of “religion.” Basically, anything that causes you to cross your fingers and hope for results is idiotic. Other characters will tell them so later.

The plot becomes more complicated as other characters are introduced and cycled into the family members’ lives. When a suspicious event occurs, the book takes a turn into Nancy Drew territory. Georgina especially begins doing detective work that seemed foolish to me. I kept wondering why no one went to the police (or why these righteous Christian folks thought it was okay to hide things during the original police investigations), so I became annoyed with their behaviors. I kept picturing baby ducks separated from their mother, running and shrieking. Bad things are happening, but no one knows what to do because they’re so stubborn.

Whenever faced with a problem, the family’s answer was “Jesus is my friend” or “The Bible says it isn’t right” or “Love the sin, not the sinner.” I can see how Borrowdale sets up these characters so that they are later forced to question their beliefs, but hearing them spout the same phrases every Christian uses–and throughout the entire book–made the plot drag. Perhaps a more complex look at how people become involved in religion or alternative therapies would have brought more life to the story. The cultural significance of Doubting Stephen is null, as the book covers common territory that doesn’t make me question belief systems. The characters won’t listen to the most obvious facts until they are “forced to accept the truth,” as Jill puts it. When someone has clearly done an awful deed, the other characters come to his/her defense, claiming “_________ would never do that! He/she is a Christian!”

In the end, we learn that everyone has a secret because the characters fail at basic communication. “Perhaps we should have chatted 20 years ago” is a nice sentiment, but it leaves the reader frustrated with Christians who lie, hate, and judge. This may have been the intentions of the author, and she does mention in a note at the end that her characters exhibit behaviors she’s seen in churches. But, even after the characters question what they believe, they’re still the most unlikable lot because there isn’t a sense of personal development. I might argue that the book ends where it begins, in a sense: there are problems, and no one is talking to their family members. I kept imagining the book focusing less on the Nancy Drew mysteries and more on the development of the characters, which would come after Borrowdale stopped her novel.

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