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What We're Reading Now: "Glittering Images," by Susan Howatch

A few years ago I had the idea that I should start writing romance novels. Following the accepted formula for generating porn names (first pet + the street you grew up on), my nom de plume would be “Penny Rural Route 1.” My assumption was that women who read romances are lonely and dissatisfied, and that they read smutty novels to encounter the kind of darkly smoldering, bodice-ripping men they hope to meet in real life. I thought romance fiction written by a guy – even a guy who looks a lot like Zach Galifianakis and not at all like Zac Efron – would play into the fantasy that there is a silk-shirted pirate in every man, and it’s just public nudity laws keeping all the bodice-ripping in check.

I wish I could say the reason I didn’t pursue my plan was because it was cynical and deeply mercenary. Or because I found out that nearly all my assumptions about romance readers were wrong, which they were, according to the Romance Writers of America (10% of romance readers are men, and romance readers are more likely than the general population to be in a romantic relationship). In truth, I discarded my idea because I knew that if I was going to write romances I was going to have read romances. And it just wasn’t worth it.

I can therefore say that Glittering Images, by the British author Susan Howatch, is the first book I’ve ever purchased from the romance section. I keep running across Howatch’s name on blogs and in books. Judging by the enthusiasm and devotion she seems to inspire in people whose tastes I admire, last week I developed a hunch that Howatch would have been included in Besides the Bible if any of us had ever read her books, especially her so-called “church novels”: The St. Benet’s Trilogy and The Starbridge Sextet (snicker). What finally convinced me to venture into the romance section of my local used bookstore were a couple excerpts from Absolute Truths (Starbridge #6) that I read in Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars, his recent book about creativity and suffering. For example, Bell quotes this passage in which a sculptor named Harriet March is talking to a theologian who has come to visit her studio:

“But no matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing, it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess – but it’s agony, agony, agony – while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world – and that’s the creative process which so few people understand.”

I started reading Glimmering Images (Starbridge #1) a couple days ago. The novel is set in England in the 1930s. Its protagonist is a young clergyman in the Anglican Church who is sent to the town of Starbridge to poke around in the private life of an ambitious bishop who has been making trouble for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rumors are circulating throughout the church hierarchy that the married bishop is a womanizer and may have a sexual relationship with a member of his household staff. I’m only on page 70 out of about 500. So far, the bishop has come up clean, but cracks are starting to show in the facade.

A couple elements combine to make Glittering Images a unique reading experience. One is Howatch’s extensive use of dialogue – which probably accounts for 85% of the book – to drive the story and deepen her characters. Another is the way Howatch weaves the predicatable threads of the romance novel (mystery, excitement, desire) with – no kidding – Anglican theology and moral philosophy. (I read online somewhere that a professor at one English seminary uses Glittering Images as a primary text in her theology class.) And somehow it works.

I admit I’m not hooked yet, but I bet I soon will be. I get this sense I’m being lured into a trap, that I’ll get halfway through the book and I’ll realize that Glittering Images isn’t really about the did-he-or-didn’t-he sexual infidelities of a bishop. It’s about something more interesting, more important than that. Whether or not the book deserves to be shelved in the romance section remains to be seen, but I’m starting to see what’s got everyone so hot and bothered.

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