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“Redeeming Love” — A Review

Reviewing Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love was, for me, a lot like treading on holy ground. At least, that’s how iconic the novel seems to have become in many Christian circles. So several weeks ago when I took the Romance Challenge and pledged to read one Christian Romance novel, Redeeming Love was, as I expected, one of the most oft-recommended selections.

It’s hard not to have high expectations going into this book (especially seeing the 760+ 5 star reviews at Amazon) and, try as I might, I couldn’t disentangle this praise from my reading. More than once I had to stop and ask myself, What do people see in this book? I’ll conclude my review with, what I believe, is the enduring strength of the tale and, perhaps, its primary redemptive quality.

(Note: There are spoilers throughout this review.) In a nutshell, the story is about a prostitute named Angel who is relentlessly wooed by a god-fearing man named Michael. Touted as a retelling of the biblical story of Hosea and Gomer, it’s pretty obvious from the outset where this is headed. I felt that knowing this took some punch out of the story. However, employing a prostitute as the vehicle to demonstrate God’s boundless, tenacious love, is very effective. Who has not, upon realization of the Bridegroom’s great grace and mercy, felt like a used up whore? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I struggled through this book for two main reasons: Mediocre prose and redundancy.

Yes, Rivers shows flashes of poetry. But for the most part, I found her prose clunky to the point of distraction. There are few complex sentences, which for me, gave the reading an endless staccato feel. Here’s some samples of what I mean. Notice the employment (I’d say, overuse) of short, clipped sentences.

Angel hated her life. She hated the Duchess. She hated Magowan. She hated her own wretched helplessness. Most of all she hated the men for their relentless quest for pleasure. She gave them her body but not a particle more. Maybe there wasn’t any more. She didn’t know. And that didn’t seem to matter to any of the men. All they saw was her beauty, a flawless veil wrapped around a frozen heart, and they were enthralled. They looked into her angel eyes and were lost. (Kindle, location 810)

And this:

She didn’t want him bothering her anymore. He wanted her. She felt it radiating from his body, but he never did anything about it. He talked. He asked questions. He waited, for what she didn’t know. She was tired of trying to think up lies to make him happy. He just asked the same question again in a different way. He wouldn’t give up. Each time he came, he was more determined. (1238)

There are many more examples of this stylistic tendency.

Short sentences are important to a story and can provide necessary punch. Too many of them, however, has the exact opposite effect. I labored through Redeeming Love, in part, because of this.

Another bent of the author, one you will notice in the above quotes, is starting sentences with a pronoun.

  • She hated
  • She gave
  • She didn’t know
  • They looked
  • She felt
  • He waited
  • She was tired
  • He wouldn’t give up

I can’t recall reading a book where this bad habit is so predominant. It’s one I’d encourage every aspiring author to break themselves of. Which is probably why Redeeming Love is not a book I would use as an example of great Christian writing.

My second problem with the book was its redundancy. The story seemed to be covering the same ground. Angel sins. Michael takes her back. Angel falls. Michael takes her back. Angel leaves. Michael comes looking for her. Angel’s finally coming around. Michael is there when she does. By the middle of the book, I was tiring. It could be argued that this is the moral of Redeeming Love. We fall, again and again, and God’s “redeeming love” finds us. While this works existentially (I can attest to it!), it’s a difficult go for a reader. I felt like I was watching Peter Jackson drag out Kong’s death to the point of absurdity. After Angel’s third defection and restoration, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I get it already!”

I also want to take this opportunity to discuss edginess in Christian fiction. This is a topic I talk a lot about on my website and, frankly, is one of the reasons I decided to read Redeeming Love. You see, many Christians cite Redeeming Love as an example that Christian fiction can be edgy. However, after actually reading the book, I personally see the claim as lacking foundation.

I do not seek out books and films on the basis of their “family friendliness.” So this book really didn’t push any of my envelopes. There is no cursing and all the references are by implication. Yes, much of the story takes place among prostitutes and in brothels. However, if that alone is meant to be edgy, I’m missing something.

In fact, this G-rated axiom leads to some rather awkward moments. Like this one where the protags finally have, um, sexual relations:

When he kissed her, Angel was lost in a wilderness of new sensations. It had never felt like this, warm and wonderful, exciting and right. None of the old rules applied. She forgot everything she had ever learned from other masters. She was dry ground soaking in a spring rain, a flower bud opening to the sun. Michael knew and gently coaxed her with tender words flowing over her like the sweet balm of Gilead healing her wounds. And she flew, Michael with her, into the heavens. (5223)

“She was dry ground soaking in a spring rain”? She was “lost in a wilderness of new sensations”? She “flew” with her husband “into the heavens”? I’m sorry, but this is corny.

I also find it extremely interesting that Redeeming Love was first published in the general market. From the Wikipedia article:

The book was first published in the mainstream market by Bantam books in 1991. Because it was released by general market publisher, the book did not hold completely explicit Christian content, such as the baptismal scene in the book and Angel’s Christian conversion; however, when the book went out of print several years later, Rivers got the rights back to her book and made the additions to the novel. The novel was re-released by Multnomah Publishers in 1997.

Think about this: The book that is considered by many as the “gold standard” for Christian Romance was not first published as Christian Romance.

I find that fascinating. Don’t you?

The question I would pose to fans of CBA fiction, particularly CBA Romance, is what this fact says about the book and about the CBA, if anything? Could a book like Redeeming Love be published today in the CBA by a first-time author? Was the book’s ABA success necessary for its CBA acquisition? These are just a few questions that went through my mind.

But back to the book.

The strength of the story, in my opinion, is its redemptive arc and its parabolic whimsy. At times I felt like this was less a romance novel and more of a contemporary fable. The author has captured, however crudely, the essence of the Gospel of Grace. Angel, the orphaned girl turned prostitute, exemplifies the sinful wreckage of humanity, our wanderlust, our hardness of heart. And Michael, however one-dimensional he appears, reminds us of the Eternal God who will not rest in drawing us to Himself. It is a powerful, powerful theme. After spending time with this book, and mulling its popularity, I can reach no other conclusion but that its enduring quality lies in its alignment with this profound biblical reality: God loves sinners. Amen and amen.

I’ve taken a risk in reviewing this book, and I’m sure I’ll incur some wrath for it. I would probably give Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers three out of five stars. While I sincerely hope this isn’t “the best Christian Romance novel” out there, I believe Ms. Rivers captures something that is essential to good Christian fiction — a portrayal of the hellish depths of human depravity and the vast, unrelenting scope of God’s love. And for this, I applaud her.

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{ 114 comments… add one }
  • Casey February 4, 2013, 8:44 PM

    Instead of dwelling on all of Francine Rivers “bad habits” and corny sex scenes try thinking about it from my perspective.

    There are many people like Angel/Sarah out there and this book, even with all of its flaws, was an incredible tool to bring healing to them.

    Iam one of them. I thank God that the author wrote word for word how she did in this book. I took a step in healing and this literally saved my marriage and my life.

  • Casey February 4, 2013, 8:50 PM

    Also, you might want to read this. Might change your views a little on the book. Clearly this book didn’t get your votes. But the author didn’t write it for kicks in giggles. She wrote it for them. &(me)

    http://www.francinerivers.com/blog/sex-trafficking-awareness

  • anieva March 20, 2013, 2:07 PM

    I just finished this book and loved it. That doesn’t mean I think it was great writing. Just take things for what they are, I’d say, and stop bemoaning and worrying about ‘corny’ language and ‘purple prose.’ Who cares? It seems like everyone wants any one book to be all things to them, but that simply isn’t possible. I think people need to get over their fear of corniness and the feeling of intimidation they obviously feel when they aren’t reading ‘literature.’ There’s room for all sorts of books.

    Frankly, there was a simplicity in the writing of this book that made it exceedingly readable. The short sentences work in those graphs you cite because they are apropos to the seething the girl feels in one scene (exactly how often do you spew streams multi-clause sentences when you’re livid- unless you’re on Designing Women?). Staccato and repetitive was appropriate at that point. And it seemed like normal thought in both graphs. As far as pronouns are concerned, the big mistake would have been if Rivers felt she needed to use proper nouns all the time.

    I agree there was overwrought language here, but instead of comparing this book with conventional ideals of ‘good writing’, I choose to see it as its own beauty. In the same way a person needn’t be conventional to be beautiful, neither does a book, and it’s silly for any reader or writer – me included – to assign those standards when judging. To me, it smacks of discomfort with natural, unguarded relaxed language – the true kind that people can relate too when they don’t let their inner editor sneer at them like the meanies in the in-group during high school).

    Just let it roll and appreciate it for what it is, and that’s a beautiful story that – as my mum so rightly said is like a “gentle wave”. Let’s just get over our precious selves.

  • Chichi June 13, 2013, 2:37 PM

    It’s obvious from the way you write Mike, that you’re more than an ‘average reader’ as you have a great way with words and an impressive command of English. I suppose that enables you to see loopholes in Francine Rivers’ writing – the short sentences etc – which simply wouldn’t bother the lay reader like me. I actually couldn’t put the book down when I first read it and it remains one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
    However, when it comes to what you consider the over simplicity and repetitiveness of the story in terms of Angel leaving, Michael taking her back etc, I think there’s so much more to it than that. At each stage when Angel leaves, there are completely different issues involved, and I think it’s a beautiful picture of the stages of our growth in the Lord until we are able to leave our old selves behind and fully accept His love… I thought it was skillfully portrayed that we have layers and layers which we keep having to take off in order to receive more of Him. And that the ultimate comes when there are no more layers, no more hiding – Angel’s state when she went back to Michael the last time, never to leave again.
    As for the sex scene, or lack thereof, I thought she got round the issue very well… we knew what they did, without the detail that so debases mainstream romance novels – at least for me. I wouldn’t refer to the book as edgy, though the author definitely doesn’t skirt around issues, but I hardly think her aim was to be edgy…
    Just my thoughts on the issue

  • Anna February 3, 2014, 7:44 PM

    when was this review written exactly?

  • Levi Creg March 10, 2015, 2:42 PM

    I disagree with your review. it should be 5/5 stars. this book captured the essence of what it is like to be a sinner and saved by Gods grace. I am only 15 but this was an amazing novel and it is my favorite book. Michael wasnt an idiot he was a christian who believed in gods unfailing love and that anythings possible through Him, and we are all sinners like angel no matter how good we think we are we are nothing better than angel

  • Vivienne April 27, 2015, 3:51 AM

    I have just read Redeeming Love – the first Christian romance I have read, and it will be my last. My biggest problem with the book is that Angel, having been severely abused, would not have been in touch with any good feelings at all. I am speaking from experience. I was numb for a long time after I left my abusive ‘Christian’ husband. It took me a long time to know that good feelings are relevant to me. It has taken me YEARS with a lot of Christian support, learning about human behaviour, and God’s inner healing to be in touch with them. Another problem I had with the book is the 16 year old moving in with the bitter widower: how ridiculous! The Bible account of Ruth was totally different. Why didn’t the 16 year old ask her parents to arrange the marriage, if she was so desperate?!!

  • Angie February 26, 2016, 12:57 PM

    Maybe the author os this article needs to study the book of Hosea in the bible. And obviously it is well written enough yo sell quite a few books. I personally thought it is a wonderfully riveting book. Could not put it down till I was finished.

  • Angie February 26, 2016, 12:59 PM

    Maybe the author os this article needs to study the book of Hosea in the bible. And obviously it is well written enough yo sell quite a few books. I personally thought it is a wonderfully riveting book. Could not put it down till I was finished. Wonderful book

  • TammyK December 27, 2017, 2:21 PM

    You are clearly a self-gratifying contemporary woman. You should not seek out “family friendly” and/or Christian romance novels to read. Their simplistic themes are beyond your elite intellectualism.

  • Jenna Dyer December 31, 2017, 7:46 AM

    In the book she was ALSO numb for years and years and severely calluses from any feeling that was depicted beautifully in the book.

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