Young adult novel takes on religious themes


I started reading The Opposite of Hallelujah with only a very basic idea of what I was in for. This was in part because the jacket blurb is misleading (which is typical) and also because I haven’t come across many reviews or opinions for the book. I was hoping for a family drama featuring religious themes, and that’s what I got, though, as a whole, this wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.

Describing this novel as a family drama with religious themes is more or less right on the money. Caro’s sister, Hannah, has been in a convent for the past eight years when she decides to leave unexpectedly. Cue many shouting matches and freeze-out between the sisters, lots of parental edicts, and an eating disorder. I find no fault with the family dynamics Ms Jarzab portrayed here.

I was also more or less satisfied with the religious elements. At no point did I feel like the author inserted herself and began to soapbox her own opinions, whatever they may be. The topic of Christianity was tastefully handled, being neither too preachy or rabidly anti-God. Over the course of the novel, Caro forms a relationship with Father Bob, a priest she originally went to for spiritual counselling. Father Bob was fair and realistic, much like most other Christians I’ve come across, though obviously I’m not saying they’re all that way.

Photo by Renae Musekamp

Yet in spite of the promised family dynamics and tasteful glimpse at religion, I wasn’t blown away by The Opposite of Hallelujah. The crux of that problem comes down to Anna Jarzab’s prose. A book can be as thematically awesome and well-constructed as it pleases, but without strong writing to give it backbone, it usually won’t do anything for me. And when it comes down to it, I don’t think Jarzab is a particularly good writer. Her prose was juvenile and, honestly, boring. It’s never a good sign when a reader can’t wait to move on to his/her next read before even the halfway point has been reached, but that’s what happened here.

I really think that all of my problems with this book are the direct or indirect result of the author’s weak prose. For instance, though I liked the idea of Caro and Hannah’s difficult relationship, I couldn’t get engaged. Jarzab wasn’t able to translate emotion onto the page. I really hate bringing it up, because I don’t think it’s an absolute truth, but in some cases “show vs. tell” has merit. The Opposite of Hallelujah is one of those cases. Caro often directly told the reader that “My friends and I always did this because of this reason” or “I felt this way so I had no choice but to act this way.” Why couldn’t Caro have just acted the way she was going to act without telling the reader that she was doing it because she was angry/upset/confused?

I have a few pet peeves when it comes to writing—things that don’t (as far as I’ve noticed) tend to bother other readers, but will always make me cringe. If a book is good, I can let those things slide, but if I’m having trouble, pushing those buttons is almost always bad. Unfortunately for Jarzab, my boredom with her writing turned into annoyance when she began to use not one, but almost all of the techniques that drive me batty. The big one for me was that, whenever a character was first introduced to the reader, Caro would then devote an entire paragraph to that person’s physical description. Number one, I don’t need to know the color of every single person’s eyes, because it seriously does not matter in any way, shape, or form. Number two, if the author really does have to let the reader know what her characters look like, there are much better ways than “I stare into the mirror and take in my…” or “I was struck immediately by his eyes, which were…” It’s really not hard to incorporate physical descriptions into the text naturally and subtly, without throwing a huge chunk of pointless details at the reader. Doing so, in my opinion, is one of the hallmarks of weak writing.

After saying all that about Jarzab’s prose, I should probably clarify. It’s not bad, exactly. It was just emotionally unengaging for me, which made me lose interest in what should have been an excellent book. A story really can’t be compelling or memorable if it has childish, ineffective writing bogging it down.

In the long and short, I wasn’t as impressed with The Opposite of Hallelujah as I’d hoped to be. The premise and idea were solid, and the execution was done very well. But, unfortunately, things were missing from the composition that made the big picture a little lackluster. I am ambivalent toward this novel.

By Renae Musekamp

This book review was originally published at Respiring Thoughts on Jan. 7, 2013.