Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review: P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy (2018)

P.S. I Miss You is about a young girl named Evie who is in seventh grade and missing her older sister, Cilla. Cilla, a high school student, is pregnant and has moved away to live with a great aunt until she gives birth, at which point she plans to give the baby up for adoption and enroll in a Catholic boarding school. Though her parents didn't exactly force Cilla to leave, they also haven't been at all supportive of her pregnancy, and Evie blames them for Cilla's refusal to answer her letters, or to come home for a visit. In the meantime, Evie finds herself drawn to the new girl in school, June. Her feelings develop over the course of the book, causing her to realize she likes girls, and apparently not boys.

I heard of P.S., I Miss You for the first time when I came across this piece, in which the author expresses her disappointment about schools not wanting her to visit and talk about the book's themes, which include same-sex attraction between two middle school girls, a teen pregnancy, and the Catholic faith. Originally, I was not going to read it, because, now that I'm not working in a library anymore, I try to prioritize books that I might want to add to my girls' library or that I might want to borrow from the library for them. Since the subject matter of this book is not something we seek out, I figured I'd devote my energy to the other books on my ever-growing to-read pile.

But then I started hearing about how much of a role Catholicism plays in this book. I found myself reading reviews and wondering how well this book really handled the Catholic faith. I figured, based on the subject matter, that the overall impression of the church given by the book would not be positive, but I became really curious about whether it was accurate. (In the past, I have made a point of reading books with religious content for that same reason. These include The Inquisitor's Tale and Almost Paradise.) So I downloaded the ARC from Edelweiss with the primary goal of critiquing the treatment of religion in the book, for better or for worse.

First of all, I want to say that, content aside, in terms of writing quality and character development, this is a solid three-star novel. The epistolary format is a bit awkward, but it works okay, and there are some surprising turns of events that caught me totally off-guard. Though the relationship at the heart of the story is not something I typically want to read about, I can recognize that it is handled in accordance with what most people expect of  a middle grade novel on this subject.

Still, in this age of hyper-awareness about diversity and the accuracy of facts about others' cultures, it is surprising to me how much this book misses the mark when it comes to its portrayal of the Catholic church. The problems I found fall into two categories: extreme negativity toward the Catholic faith (which may only matter to someone like me who has a positive view) , and blatant misinformation (which should, I think, matter to anyone who hands the book to a child).

The negativity surrounding Evie's view of the church is pervasive. Evie describes her religion as "mean and judgy" and complains about being dragged to Mass and forced to wear an "ugly smear" on her forehead on Ash Wednesday. She questions whether a priest would allow someone with pink hair inside of  a church and describes her parents as "backward." She calls the ritual of washing feet on Holy Thursday "silly", Communion hosts "gross," and crucifixes "creepy," While Evie is obviously angry with her religion, it feels a little unrealistic that she has been raised in this faith from birth and has almost no positive associations with it. The reader certainly gets the idea that Evie is questioning her beliefs due to her anger, but the reader also gets the idea that Catholicism is cruel and unfair and generally awful. Evie does say at one point that there are things she enjoys about church, and she speaks fondly of her first communion dress, but these few instances do not counterbalance the negativity of all these other details. And overall, this negativity serves to reinforce the inaccurate stereotypes about Catholicism that abound in our culture.

Stereotypes are also easily reinforced by misinformation about Catholic teaching, and there is a fair amount of that in this book. The story's overall understanding of sin is probably the biggest example. Evie mentions again and again that Cilla has "really sinned" by having sex outside of marriage and conceiving a child. She imagines that her parents have never sinned since they've never done anything "bad" and that she herself only becomes a sinner when she develops feelings for June. It feels incongruous to me that parents so involved in the church and so concerned over "forcing" their kids into it have not explained the types of sin (venial vs. mortal) to their children, and that Evie doesn't feel she has ever committed either type. It also feels completely unbelievable that this book never mentions Confession! Evie spends a lot of time thinking about whether her sister's sin will disappear when she gives birth to her baby, as though she has no idea that sins can be forgiven in Confession. Unless her parents don't believe in Confession (a pretty big detail to leave out in a book so concerned with sin), it seems like they would have been "dragging" her to Confession the same way they drag her everywhere else associated with religion. The fact that Evie's dad simply states that "homosexuality is a sin" is also an oversimplified statement that does not make the important distinction between experiencing same sex attraction and acting upon it.

Other details also demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Catholic teaching. Evie refers to the Mass which is said on January 1st as a "special New Year's Mass" when in fact, in most years, this would be the Mass for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, a holy day of obligation. She also wrongly says that the ritual of washing feet on Holy Thursday is about the washing away of sins, when really it is about imitating an act of Jesus in which he humbled himself to become like a servant to demonstrate his love for his friends. She also questions why she has to use prescribed prayers instead of speaking to God in her own words (she doesn't) and the need for saints, asking why she can't just do things for herself (of course she can). Her statement that God hates her for who she likes is also not something the church teaches, even though it is a common misconception. Also problematic are the statement that the church teaches that all atheists automatically go to Hell (the church does not teach this about any group, as only Jesus can make this judgment)  and the connection Evie makes between zombies and the Resurrection (a bad joke that makes its offensive Internet rounds every Easter.)

When I was a kid, I didn't know very much about my faith either. It absolutely rings true that Evie, whose CCD (religious education) teacher seems boring and strict, might not be aware that her impressions of what is happening in church are incomplete or off-base. But if this is the point - that Evie's parents misunderstand and misuse church teaching, and that Evie herself has been poorly catechized in the faith - then there needs to be some information in the text that establishes the norm from which this family deviates. Without that, it is easy for a young reader to discern that everything this book says about Catholicism is true, and to conclude therefore that the Catholics they know must also be mean, judgmental, backward, etc. I want to believe that it is not the goal of this book to incite hatred for the Catholic faith, but I think it is definitely a likely result of reading the story.

Just before sitting down to write this review I learned from reading this interview that the author has based this story on the experience of her childhood best friend, and that she herself was raised Catholic. I don't doubt that some of what happens in this book probably happened to her friend, or to her, or that it could happen to any child. What is troublesome for me is that the bad behavior of Evie's parents and Evie's own anger-tainted view of her faith is all the reader gets of Catholicism. Every unfair stereotype of a Catholic family is present in this book, and none of the nuances or richness of the faith that make it such an important part of so many people's lives, including mine. And though I think most traditional Catholic families like mine would avoid the book anyway based on the subject matter, it is so disappointing to know that non-Catholic readers don't get the opportunity in one of the few middle grade novels about Catholicism to expand their horizons beyond the tired stereotypes and misinterpretations of church teaching.


  1. Wow, this does seem like a misfire. I wonder how old the author is? The experiences don't match up with my memories of growing up Catholic in New York and Texas in the 1970's and 1980's.

    I'm also disappointed that a book with the chance to show a Catholic family in modern life missed the mark so much.

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