Title: The Actor and the Housewife
Author: Shannon Hale
I stayed up late, late, late last night finishing The Actor and the Housewife. On the "keeps me reading late into the night factor" I guess I should give it a good rating. And barring that, Annie's looking over my shoulder, and her third-grade teacher is Hale's aunt, and Annie will be sure to tattle on me if I don't have nice things to say.
Honestly, though, it was a cute book. Becky Jack is a frumpy, thirty-something Mormon housewife and mom of almost-four when she meets Hollywood superhunk Felix Callahan (I kept picturing Colin Firth in Brad Pitt's body) and they immediately fall into an intense best-friendship. Over the next decade, they explore the age-old question "Can men and women ever just be friends?" In Mormon circles, Hale's characters frown on the friendship, and she often second-guesses her need to have a close emotional relationship with a man who is not her (amazing, ridiculously wonderful) husband.
This novel, like Hale's other books, has an audience wider than just Deseret Book readers, and I guess that's what makes me uncomfortable about parts of it. If there's something that embarrasses you about Mormon culture (dorky bishops giving bad advice, our oft-misguided culinary choices, kissing over the temple altar for the first time), Hale goes there. Jack is outspoken and abhors swear words and t-shirts with slogans. She's quick-witted enough to banter with the most flippant of Hollywood stars, but is overwhelmed by her wardrobe and the state of her kitchen counters.
I know I complained about the sappy-happy ending of Austenland, but I'm tired this morning after staying up all night to finish The Actor and the Housewife. To tell you the truth, I didn't get the ending I expected, probably based on what happened in Austenland. But the right thing happens, and the right thing is probably the only thing that would have satisfied Becky Jack. If you are a Mormon housewife, you'll probably enjoy the book as escapist fiction. If you're not, don't judge me based on Becky Jack. I've never made three pies a week to give away. No, I'm more of a brownie girl myself...
When I was in Young Women’s, it seemed that whenever our planned Mutual activities fell apart, the go-to Plan B was to pull some Books of Mormon out of a storage closet and have us write our testimonies in them. At that time in my life, I had zero qualms about standing in front of a congregation on Fast Sunday and bearing my testimony, or talking in a fireside about my conversion to the gospel, but for some reason my mind always blanked when it came to writing about my faith. I’d write and it felt stale and unconvincing, like what I was feeling in my heart couldn’t properly be put into words. It was ironic, because one of my most prized possessions at that time was a Book of Mormon that we had gotten from the missionaries at Temple Square, with a neatly-typed, sincere testimony from a beehive-haired little old lady from Northern Utah glued onto the inside cover. I loved reading about her testimony, but I felt like mine lost something in the translation from spoken to written word.
Mitch Albom’s most recent book, Have a Little Faith, is, in a way, the story of his gaining a testimony. He says, “This is a story about believing in something and the two very different men who taught me how.” He starts the story at a point in his life when everything was going well– he had a good relationship with his wife, great kids, and a satisfying and exciting career, but religion had taken a back seat because, well, he didn’t really need it at that point in his life. He went home to New Jersey to visit his parents and ran into the Albert Lewis, known as the Reb, the elderly rabbi of his childhood congregation, who shocked him by asking Albom to give the eulogy at his funeral. Albom was taken aback by the request, saying, “And as is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one.” Over the next decade, he came to know the Reb not just as a spiritual leader but as a man, and watched him grow old and eventually die. During the same time, he became close with Henry Covington, a pastor at an inner-city congregation in Detroit whose church ran a homeless shelter that got assistance from Albom’s foundation. Albom intersperses the Reb’s story with his own and with Covington’s, who came to Detroit and found his calling after an early life of crime, drug abuse and incarceration and now works to help change the lives of people who are as he once was, who need someone to have faith in them.
I want to come clean with you: I haven’t been Mitch Albom’s greatest fan. I read Tuesdays with Morrie when it came out years ago, and I cried with the rest of you when Morrie died. But my tears felt forced, like I was crying just because that was what was expected of me when the good professor finally succumbed to ALS. A few years later I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven for a book group and decided it was the worst book I’d ever read– the cheesiest “the circle of our love is more than just a rising sun that sets” kind of speculative spiritualism straight out of Saturday’s Warrior and Star Child combined with the emotional manipulativeness of a Jodi Picoult novel. After that experience, I disparagingly called all small, sentimental, expensive hardcover books (think Richard Paul Evans’s The Christmas Box or Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture) “Mitch Albom books” and avoided them on principle. A few years ago I ordered Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist from Amazon. When it arrived in the “Mitch Albom book” format I readjusted my expectations and was shocked to find a challenging, academic book, just in a fancy “gift book for grandma” presentation. The point is, I had some significant prejudices against Albom’s work going into reading Have a Little Faith.
So I was surprised to find that the book wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Albom was at his best when writing about the Reb, the story that felt closest to his heart and his own spiritual center. I wonder if Albom or his publishers felt that sharing another story about his visits with a dying mentor would be too similar to Tuesdays with Morrie. In fact, I had always considered Tuesdays with Morrie to be the story of Albom’s “secular conversion” from a selfish hotshot to a person who looked out for others and their needs. The chapters with Covington, while they help us see Albom’s initial prejudices and his conversion in action, seem almost out of place in the story, like some editor out there wanted the story to be more than just Albom visiting Lewis, so they threw the Covington chapters in as well. I think that the Covington story could have stood on its own, as either another short memoir or a longer article-length piece, but including them in the story with Lewis felt somewhat forced.
Through his relationship with Lewis and Covington, Albom maintains that he’s gained a spiritual conversion as well. But while he writes eloquently about his visits with the Reb and what they awaken within his own heart, and persuasively about seeing past his own mindset in his visits with Covington and his congregation, I think that Albom, like me, is ultimately uncomfortable writing about the faith he now holds dear to his heart. So he, like many of us up on the stand on Fast Sunday, tells stories to highlight experiences instead. And in this case, at least, I think he succeeds.