From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s doomed Puritans and Flannery O’Connor’s cursed freaks, right up to Marilynne Robinson’s devout, reserved Midwesterners, there is a rich tradition of religious novels in American literature. Val Brelinski explores similar themes in her provocatively titled debut novel The Girl Who Slept With God. Brelinski, who has served as a fellow and lecturer at Stanford, clearly drew upon her own life to write this book. She grew up in Idaho, a daughter of devout evangelical Christians, just like Grace and Jory, the troubled teens at the center of her novel. After a brief, compelling opening, which finds Jory in a “house of . . . exile,” running off to meet a mystery man in an ice cream truck, Brelinski downshifts to introduce us to the Quanbeck family: Jory, 14, and Grace, 17; their younger sister, Frances, their father, Oren (a devoutly religious professor of science) and their sickly, unstable mother. It is 1970, and Grace has returned from a missionary trip to Mexico pregnant. Equal parts enraged and perplexed, Oren banishes Grace and Jory, who’s having her own coming-of-age problems. This means a new school and new friends for the withdrawn Jory, as well an outgoing neighbor named Mrs. Kleinfelter. By the time the man in the ice cream truck arrives, Grace and Jory have built themselves an alternative—and possibly more supportive—family.
The Girl Who Slept With God is not without flaws: The family sparring occasionally becomes tedious and some dialogue could have been pruned. But Brelinkski builds a realistic depiction of Jory's struggles with school, love, clothes and even her own body. And she commendably avoids the pitfalls of so many books, movies and TV shows by examining religion with depth and complexity. The narrative momentum builds impressively as Jory uncovers secrets and confronts painful truths about family, love, religion and growing up.