Like I Used To Dance by Barbara Frances (3 Stars)

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Thank you to NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

SPOILER ALERT – I can’t really write a review without discussing some of the outcomes of this book, so read it first, make up your own mind, and come back later to read my opinion.

This is the story of two devout Catholics, Bud and Grace, their three children and other assorted characters. It takes place in a small farming community in 1950’s Texas, and anything and everything is included in the tale. To sum it up, Bud explains it thusly, “Our kids, my, my, Gracie, where did we go wrong? One marries God, another a Jew, and the last one, the devil!” The main theme of the book is the path each takes to find happiness.

The character development is good, and you feel as if you know each character and care, or not, about what happens to them. There are so many social issues, one after the other, that it almost became overwhelming:  alcoholism, rape (including that of a developmentally disabled man), murder, racism, domestic abuse, infidelity, miscarriage, depression, homosexuality and how about a little voodoo while we’re at it. It would have been good as a dramatic soap opera but, unfortunately, the book also attempts to cross over into the difficult realm of religion and its dogma. The book relies to a great degree on Catholic themes of confession, penance and forgiveness, which was quite heavy-handed against the Church at times. Unfortunately, the conflict between self and Catholicism specifically and organized religion in general was never fully explored. Instead, everything gets tidily wrapped up and everyone happily moves on.

It didn’t ring true to me as 1950’s Texas would be much less liberal than today’s society  and tolerance of other’s behaviors would have been much harder to accept. I am specifically referring to Bud’s acceptance of his wife’s lesbian relationship. After a night of drinking, he decides that it has enriched their lives by making her a better person more aware of her body and herself, and he is happy once again. She decides it makes her a better wife because she is more aware of her body as well as being more independent, and she is happy once again. So simplistic! I would have thought the guilt such a devout Catholic would have felt would have been profound and not so easily explained away by Grace, and a wife’s infidelity so significant to not be so easily accepted by Bud. In another instance, Regina feels guilt about the relief her abusive husband’s near-death brings. She also feels guilt about his eventual real death but, hey, it’s okay because she found another man and is happy. In the same manner, Angela sleeps with her boyfriend days before entering the convent and keeps those memories as something sweet that God wouldn’t frown upon. While that may be, in the context of entering the convent it seems disingenuous. The book does touch briefly on each person’s inner struggle, but the self-serving behavior is presented as justified, so everyone’s happy.  

I would have liked the book much more if the author had not brought religion into the mix. The story was big enough to stand on its own, and bringing religion into the mix only muddled the story.

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