About This Book
Ada spent her first twenty-five years with her family as part of a fringe religious sect. Her only contact with the outside world was through customers at their farm store. Then she met Julian, a photojournalist who’d come to document their lifestyle. they eloped mere days later and Ada was thrust into a completely new life as a wife, city-dweller, and an individual allowed to make her own decisions. But she has no idea who she is.
On her twenty-sixth birthday, Julian plans to fly home from an assignment to give her her first-ever birthday present. He’s thrilled when Katherine Cramer gives up her seat so he can make the flight. But the plan crashes and everyone on board is killed, including Julian. Ada is completely at a loss, with no friends and no marketable skills. When Julian’s photographs are published, her life erupts into chaos. She begins traveling—with Julian’s camera for a companion—searching for answers to who she is and what she really wants.
Meanwhile, Katherine must live with the knowledge of why she gave up her seat—to extend her affair one more night. She recognizes her survival as a second chance to save her marriage. But is it too late?
When Ada’s and Katherine’s paths cross, they discover that there’s still life ahead for both of them.
I had never read this author before, but several friends and fellow writers had raved about her, so I just had to give her a try. And . . . wow. This book wasn’t a home run for me, but it was pretty close.
Ada and Katherine were very strong characters in completely different ways. I couldn’t truly relate to either of them—Ada is such a blank slate and Katherine is such a you-know-what—but they still drew me in and made me root for them, even when I didn’t want to. The supporting characters were so exquisitely detailed, I actually liked them more than I liked Ada and Katherine. But what I liked most was how they reflected, encouraged, challenged and haunted the two heroines: neither heroine is a real believer in Christ, but they are certainly each on a journey to encounter Him, and it’s the supporting cast who point the way and hem them in as their paths become straighter and narrower. Julian, Hortense, and Evan, in particular, were spellbinding, but this is truly an ensemble story. All of the characters are so flawed, so raw and wounded in their different ways, that the ultimate story is about how they all need one another to heal those wounds. But I have to admit, Julian completely stole the show for me. Can such a humble, caring, Godly man please come find me and whisk me away?
The structure of this story is a bit unusual, traveling back in time at points to show how the characters got to where they are in a particular moment, but this nonlinear development works in this genre. The pace is very direct and even, building steadily to the final moment when every storyline converges. The denouement was rather telling instead of showing, and felt a bit incomplete (perhaps because some of these characters will reappear in future books?), but after such a riveting story, I honestly didn’t care.
The book was filled with all sorts of conflict and tension. Ada struggles to know herself and questions whether she should return to her cultist family. Katherine and her entire family struggle with the fallout of multiple adulteries. Julian struggles with the seeming shallowness of his life’s work. Evan struggles literally to survive. Every page of this book is rife with tension, and every character grows and changes, though Parrish doesn’t tie everything up with neat little bows. She sets her characters on new paths, then allows her readers to imagine where and how they end up. Romantic tension is also layered throughout. Katherine and her husband obviously have one kind of tension as they try to rebuild their marriage; newlywed Ada has a completely different tension with Julian, so sheltered and spiritually abused that she has no idea how to respond to and return her husband’s love. And in what may be my favorite passage in the entire book, we learn that Julian’s best friend Hortense still carries a secret love for him, absolutely exquisite in its tragedy.
I’ve rarely read a book so visually stunning. As a character, Julian uses his photography to capture snapshots of God’s presence in everyday lives, and Parrish echoes this as a writer, using metaphor and emotional imagery to frame every scene. I could not only picture every moment, but I was there, freezing in the rain, alone in the dark, screaming in the wilderness, pounding my fists on the kitchen appliances, right along with them.
While the book is firmly rooted in spiritual themes of renewal and rebirth, the story of how Ada and Julian met and married did stretch the bounds of believability for me, with its literal “God told me so” foundation after they’d met only once. But Julian’s faith definitely anchors this whole story, and it’s through him and his camera that all the other characters come to see God in action for themselves.
Still Life is definitely for mature readers only. Death, adultery, abuse and a cult are just the tip of the iceberg. The book is peppered with mild language (hell, darn) and hints at much more explicit thoughts and words not spelled out. A father hits his son. A boy is beat up at school. Members of Ada’s family cult are tortured. A couple lives together and has a child out of wedlock. And Julian’s photographs capture some pretty gruesome scenes, including disfigured soldiers, a child and man on fire, another child wasting away from illness, and most of all, Julian’s final photos of the plane crash that kills him. Some scenes describe varying stages of nudity and identify specific body parts more than is usually seen in Christian fiction. All of the content is stark and unflinching; like Julian’s camera, there is no soft-focus lens to blur the reality of this story. But gritty though it may be for more conservative readers, all of the content is essential to the story and never included for mere shock value.
I have truly never read anything like this in Christian fiction. This book felt incredibly original, honest and daring, pushing all the right boundaries without crossing the line of inappropriateness for the Christian market. With its visual prose, this story would make a riveting movie—the kind that would easily garner Best Actress nominations for its leading ladies. Admittedly, this book started out as a bit of a bad car accident for me—I didn’t really want to read but couldn’t turn away. Once that initial shock wore off, however, I was completely spellbound, and I hope to see more of these characters in future books.
The main reason I didn’t get complete sucked into this story was because of the writing voice itself. Third-person, present-tense point-of-view is my least favorite trope, for I always find it extremely jarring—especially when using simple past tense instead of past-perfect to indicate flashbacks. It constantly made me feel like I was reading grammatical errors, and drew too much attention for me to the story telling , instead of letting me stay engrossed in the story itself. But the imagery and emotion Parrish infused into her prose was simply staggering. This book was by far the best literary fiction I have ever read in CBA, so much so that I could forgive what felt to me like awkward delivery because of the sheer perfection of what was being delivered.
Overall, this book was a beautiful conundrum for me, with a writing style I typically loathe but a storytelling power I couldn’t ignore; characters I didn’t like but will never forget; and an unflinching grittiness that shocked me almost as much as it humbled me. This story is definitely not for the faint of heart. It asks a lot of tough questions and doesn’t strive to answer them all. But one quote sums it all up for me: “Hope isn’t an explanation. It’s a Person.” That is the journey Christa Parrish’s characters begin in this gripping novel, and the journey she so beautifully challenges her readers to begin, too. I can already tell this is going to be one of my top picks of 2015, and the year has only just begun!
Available February 3, 2015 from Thomas Nelson