Allow me to point out that Along the River is not my typical reading fare. Two genres that I tend to avoid like the plague: religious fiction/memoir and romance novels, and this book has to go and put both in the subtitle! But, sometimes books pick us instead of us picking them, and I was handed this by one of my coworkers and was intrigued enough to read it all the way through. (The fact that I actually like my coworkers is insanity enough. Who does that? But I digress...) I'm glad I did, and I'm glad she handed it to me, because Along the River was an enjoyable read I would have missed entirely if left to my own book-choosing ways.
First up, I have to say: this is not a romance novel. (And that's a good thing!) It's a love story, which makes it so much more beautiful and emotional. (Not to mention, it's relieving. Now, I assumed the "Christian" tag right before "Romance Novel" in the subtitle would protect me from having to read any badly written smut scenes. I assumed correctly, thank goodness. That could have been awkward. Not to mention, as someone who is not having sex--by choice--I don't particularly have any desire to read about anyone else having it.) That is not, however, to say the story isn't romantic, because it is, very sweetly so, and sweet without giving you a toothache. The relationship that is followed throughout the pages between Phil and Valorie is a fine example of courting, that old-fashioned, now-forgotten ritual of mutual fulfillment and mutual respect. And I'd be lying if I said that reading about it didn't make me a little jealous and a little lonely.
Importantly, I did not once during this reading feel lectured about Jesus, God, etc. The main reason I avoid religious fiction/memoir is that I tend to feel harassed while reading, which takes all the enjoyment out of it for me. The love of God and living a Christian life in the way one is called is obviously a huge part of this book, as well as of the author's (and characters') life, which is as it should be. But Collier does a very fine job in showing the reader how central that love of the Father is to the motivations of the characters without overstepping the boundary into lecturing the reader. That would have caused the story to suffer, to lag, and ultimately detract from its emotional impact. I know that the point of a lot of Christian books is to put Jesus front and center, but I see no reason why that should make it okay to have a hollow story or cardboard characters--and Mr. Collier proves me right. He achieved a delicate balance without sacrificing character or plot development, or the importance of God as a leading force. He told a good story centered around the love of Jesus without using it as an anvil. Well done.
Collier's descriptions of loneliness, longing, and struggling to find a place in the world as a young adult are spot on. (Early in the narrative, when he writes of feeling like an orphan after being left at college, I started nodding. As the girl who went back to her dorm and cried after her mother drove away on move-in day, I could definitely relate.) The humor he injects, especially when dealing with the nervousness inherent in interacting with the opposite sex, is perfect, completely on target and subtle. (Another note on the humor: it tends to be smart humor, not slapstick. And I appreciate that. The dismissing of an incredibly cheesy pick-up line because the girl might not be a Calvinist? HA! Loved it.) If not necessarily the religious leanings, I think the struggles of the nineteen-year-old narrator early in the book will resonant with the young adult reader. Which really leads me to wonder just what Collier would produce if he began writing to reach the young adult market, to put God in literature that doesn't try to lecture or be high-minded, just simple and direct. (And I'm not even religious. See what a good story can do?)
In short: I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying Along the River and completely gripped by it. After finishing, I felt very good, very peaceful. The ending sort of rips your heart out, but the bulk is so satisfying. And I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come, which is, of course, the mark of a good book.