Author: Jennifer Mathieu
Published: 2015, Roaring Brook Press
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Find It: Goodreads
I have this one life that’s mine, stretching out before me like the smooth, dark water of the sea, and God is inviting me to hold my breath and slide through the waves, my arms outstretched, my feet kicking, my soul headed for points unknown.Rachel, he tells me, dive in.
Rachel Walker’s life has always been one of certainties. As a female of the Calvary Christian church community, she is the responsibility of her father until she comes of age. She is expected to help her mother take care of her many siblings in preparation for the day when she will marry, where she will then become the responsibility of her new husband and have the task of having her own children.
Rachel is seventeen -- a mere year away from marriageable age -- and the more she helps her own overstressed mother, the more she observes her older sister Faith’s life -- the less certain she is of the life she’s expected to live. When local pariah Lauren, who left Calvary Christian (and her family) a number of years ago after refusing to submit to its demands, returns to the area, Rachel’s curiosity is piqued. What really caused Lauren to leave, and why did she decide to come back to the area? Through illicit email contact, Rachel forms a tentative friendship with Lauren and comes to realize there’s so much more to life, if she’s willing to forsake what her family and church have planned for her.
It would not be incorrect to assume that Devoted is a novel that explores the place of religion in a teen’s life. It would not be an entirely accurate assessment, however, either; Devoted is about so much more than religion, and Mathieu’s sophomore novel sensitively and respectfully discusses the challenges associated with the clash of personal desires with the responsibilities imposed upon a person by others. Rachel’s struggles with her faith and her journey towards discovering what she wants in life is one that teens struggling with any previously-established life certainties will be able to relate to.
The struggles that Rachel undergoes with regard to her faith feel very real and very relatable. There’s no sudden epiphany that her family and her church community are wrong, but neither is Rachel willing to continue to accept all they tell her to do. Rather, Mathieu gives Rachel a series of small steps towards establishing a new set of convictions. During Rachel’s gradual transformation, she’s plagued by many doubts, and everything is far from resolved at the end. Like Rachel, however, readers can take comfort in the fact that by the end she’s in a much better place than she was initially.
Nowhere are Rachel’s struggles more apparent than through her relationships with others. She feels sympathy for her mother and older sister Faith, who have willingly chosen to remain in their oppressive lifestyles, but it is her relationships with her younger sister Ruth and friend Lauren that best illustrate Rachel’s doubts. Ruth is still very much a believer in all Cavalry Christian and their family expects from young women, while Lauren is very much the opposite. They stand at opposites sides of who Rachel once was, and who she can be, but neither is presented as superior, and Rachel cares for both of them equally.
Perhaps the best aspect of Devoted is that Mathieu does not demonize any particular character for his or her beliefs. Rachel’s family and her church community may be misguided in how they attempt to control the lives of their youth, but that doesn’t make them bad people; they’re simply following what they believe to be true. The same can be said for Lauren and her utter abhorrence of everything religious-based, and the Treatses and their more quiet acceptance of religion.
Mathieu’s novel presents a respectful look at extreme religious groups, demonstrating how gray areas can be found on all sides. Rachel’s struggles are poignant and relatable. The only issues I found within this novel is its length (it appears that Mathieu enjoys writing shorter, succinct novels) and Rachel’s tentative relationship with local high school boy Mark Treats, which is beautifully tentative but also feels a bit too perfect. Those minor complaints aside, Devoted is a quietly powerful book and highly recommended.
Rating: 4 stars