In EMBRACE ME, Lisa Samson pens a powerful story of forgiveness, full of surprises and a cast of interesting characters --- including one making a return appearance from a previous novel.
The story is told from several first-person points of view. Drew Parrish is the slick red-headed prosperity gospel pastor of a megachurch, 12,000 members strong and growing. He knows all the right moves and words to say, but his sincerity barely runs skin deep. When the chance comes to move to television --- and a possible show of his own --- he settles on Daisy Boyer, a pretty young singer in his congregation, to serve as co-host.
But for Daisy’s scheming mother (who sees her daughter as her ticket to fame and fortune) and for Drew, Daisy isn’t quite good enough. Her face is a little less angular than needed for television, her weight a few pounds too heavy, her nose a bit too long. Daisy endures a strict diet and exercise regime and undergoes plastic surgery after plastic surgery. Eventually, she cracks.
Drew is also feeling a growing dissatisfaction, evinced by his habit of burning himself with cigarettes to try and feel something besides the pain of his life. His father, a Washington D.C. lobbyist, is clear that Drew never quite measures up to his expectations, and his mother, he believes, committed suicide when he was still an adolescent.
The opening of the book finds Drew at the end of his rope, and relying on the guidance of a young Catholic parish priest to help him figure things out. Samson then alternately fast-forwards and rewinds her story six years, time jumps for the reader that work because of her tremendous writing skills. In this way, we meet Valentine, a freak-show oddity with a terribly burned face who tours as Lizard Woman with “Roland’s Wayfaring Marvels and Oddities.” Her best friend is Lella, the Human Cocoon, who has no arms or legs. Valentine is bitter about the past and her disfigurement, and wraps her hopes for the future up in a dream of a home of her own with Lella.
But when Lella’s life takes a new direction, Valentine finds herself thrown into the company of a heavily tattooed and dreadlocked minister, Augustine, whose vocal cords were damaged in a motorcycle accident. Both Augustine and Valentine find solace in the company of the surprisingly likeable televangelist Charmaine Hopewell, who readers may remember from Samson’s book SONGBIRD.
Together, Augustine and Valentine wrestle with the difficulty of forgiving those in their pasts who have wronged them. But the biggest test of all lies ahead. Is it possible --- truly possible --- to always forgive? Forgiveness of ourselves and others, Samson shows through her narrative and characters, doesn’t mean you can always return to who you once were. “ I realize we can destroy ourselves in ways so deep we’ll never return to the place we were before we started the destruction,” muses one character. Another character learns that words of forgiveness come first; the emotional feeling of being able to forgive follows later.
Making the time jumps back and forth from character to character is a lot to ask, but Samson succeeds in helping the reader do it. The oddities of the characters, while a little exaggerated, are vintage Samson, as are the themes of social justice and grace. The setting of a “new monastic” community, in which the members are not necessarily Catholic, but take vows of different sorts and extend hospitality, serves as backdrop for the later part of the novel and echoes the community settings of past Samson novels.
Some readers may feel the reconciliation between Augustine and a relative from his past is too neatly wrapped up toward the end while others will applaud the power of grace. But what comes through, clear and strong, is that every person is beautiful and loved in the eyes of God, and all may find forgiveness --- and offer it to another --- if it’s their true desire. Samson, who also penned QUAKER SUMMER, is one of Christian fiction’s finest novelists, and her fans will find plenty to enjoy and ponder here.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011