Meg Hennessey has lived cautiously for all of her eighteen years. She’s never kissed a boy, never cussed, and never drank. She covers her shoulders (sometimes with fairy wings) so boys don’t have impure thoughts, participates in the youth group praise band, and babysits for spending money. When she learns that she has been kept so sheltered because her own mother became pregnant as the result of a one-night stand at a youth group event (not something one hears everyday!), she cancels her gap-year plans to head north to Marquette, Michigan to meet the family of her late birth father.
Micah Allen ended up in the spotlight at age thirteen when his pastor father infamously fell from grace. Viral videos featured Micah insisting on his father’s innocence. He quickly learned that his father was guilty of embezzlement and adultery and that the church that had helped to raise him could quickly turn on his mother, his younger sisters, and on him. At nineteen, Micah has given up on the church but not on God. He has made friends who have helped through hard times, but he still dreads being recognized as “that pastor’s kid.” When Micah meets Meg, he recognizes that same blend of faith and cynicism that he possesses.
There is a lot of contrast in NSYC, in terms of innocence and experience. The love story is very happy and sweet. The only times there is serious angst between Meg and Micah is when there are external forces at work, such a malicious, gossipy church mom. All of their conflict is essentially created for them by the adults in their lives. But the challenges that face both Meg and Micah are anything but simple and easy. Both teens have come to a place where they have decided they love Christ, but they aren’t so sure about the church. As they try to figure out their place in the world, they struggle with who they want to be versus who others want them to be. Meg is told she needs to be the poster child for purity for the teen girls in her uncle’s church, while Micah is urged to forgive his father, who is scheduled to be released on parole. And the scene where Micah finally encounters his father after his release from prison is intense. And infuriating.
This is a great read for current youth group members and youth group alumni, whether they loved their youth group or barely survived it. But while the conflict initially seems specific to church teens, the issues are cultural. The purity culture that Meg struggles with is strongly associated with the evangelical church, but its influence is wider and is reflected in public school dress codes that enforce the notion that developing girls are “distractions.” Micah’s disillusionment with the adults around him is common in teens spotting the human weaknesses in their parents and in adult leaders.
I’m a bit disappointed that this came out during the pandemic as Erin Hahn is a local author (Ann Arbor), and I would have loved to meet her at a book event. Perhaps post-pandemic, I will have a chance.
If you enjoy Never Saw You Coming, here are some other novels about faith that you might like:
Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. This one is so good. A smart and thoughtful look at purity culture and homophobia in modern youth groups. I reviewed this in my previous blog.
Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker. A bit more niche than Never Saw You Coming and Dress Codes for Small Towns, this one might be a bit baffling to someone who was not raised fundamentalist. However, if you grew up in a “Purity culture is my secondary religion and Halloween is of the devil” home, you’ll totally get this one.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This story of three generations of ministers, all of them products of their time, might be the most beautiful American novel about Christianity. This is actually the first of a series, but I think this novel is the best one.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. The simplest description is this is the story of a valuable Jewish volume (the Sarajevo Haggadah) rescued from destruction by a Muslim, but it’s really a multi-century saga of faith and history.
Caleb’s Crossing, also by Geraldine Brooks. A fascinating view of early colonial American thought, Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of those outskirts of Puritan culture and power: Bethia, a minister’s daughter, who is more intellectual than her groomed-for-the-ministry brother but never feels the conviction of her father’s faith and Caleb, the brilliant son of a Wampanoag chieftain, who the Puritans have claimed for both mascot and trophy.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This is a vibrant and female-centered telling of the life of Dinah, who is portrayed as merely the disgraced daughter of Jacob in the book of Genesis. It is impossible to neatly sum up the beauty of this book.
And one nonfiction book:
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein. Klein conducted a series of interviews with young women who grew up in purity culture about how it continued to affect them in adulthood. I also reviewed this one on my previous blog.