By LOIS DAY | July 27, 2011
I’ve never read another novel quite like Solomon’s Puzzle. Is it a Christian novel? Is it secular? Like most truly intriguing works of fiction, it neatly defies easy categorization.
Call it a work of authenticity. It resembles Christian fiction with respect to some of the themes it deals with; God is certainly present, not absent, in the story it tells. But in too many Christian novels, the characters have no real depth. They aren’t like real people. The Christian characters have no flaws and the non-Christian characters no virtues, and in neither group do the characters ring true. In Solomon’s Puzzle, the characters ring true. Yes, some of them are explicitly Christian and some of them are explicitly not. That fact is far less important than the fact that they are all, pretty much without exception, delightfully and refreshingly human—that is, complex, displaying mixed motives with respect to what they do, not necessarily certain of the wisdom of their decisions, neither perfectly virtuous nor perfectly evil—just like all of us, again pretty much without exception. It’s always a pleasure to read fiction that deals honestly with human nature in all of its curious inconsistencies, and in this, Solomon’s Puzzle does not disappoint. Especially lovely, to my mind, is the way in which the specifically Christian character of certain important characters is portrayed. They are none of them holier-than-thou, never preachy, never moralistic. Yet each of them is like an icon of Christ to those with whom they come in contact, embodying what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” in a completely normal, natural, and utterly human way. And yet, at the same time, they are capable of making mistakes, even devastating mistakes, of having and expressing the kind of emotions that, because of their—how shall I put it?—their negativeness, their lack of correspondence to God’s will, in a different kind of “Christian novel,” no Christian would be permitted to have.
The received wisdom in fiction writing is to write what you know. If this is true, what can we deduce about what the author knows from reading Solomon’s Puzzle? Well, she clearly knows Annapolis, and that fact makes reading the novel a delight, especially for those who also know Annapolis and can mentally picture the places where a number of the scenes take place. (I, for instance, once lived in West Annapolis, so I had a pretty good idea of where Laurie’s quilt shop is located.) She also knows the Naval Academy and details about its life. Clearly she’s familiar with the ins and outs of being associated with a private Christian school, and it’s interesting for the reader to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of both teachers and students at such a school. It’s evident that she knows something about quilting. What she seems to know about most thoroughly, however, can be summed up in what I will call (for lack of a better term) “godly fatherhood.” I’d call this the central theme of the book: what it means to be a father; how this ideal can be perverted, and with what results; what personal qualities are essential in order for a man to be a father as God the Father is a father, to embody His divine fatherhood within the parameters of his own human fatherhood. It’s a tremendous theme, beautifully worked out, both in terms of its failure and in terms of its success. And best of all, its treatment is never heavy-handed. The reader is kept guessing for a long time because (just as in real life) the relationships are not obvious. And even when the light begins to dawn it begets further complexities that keep the reader invested—and wondering—right to the very end of the book.
Seven hundred and eighty-one pages. Okay, that was a little daunting at first. But only at first—once I started reading, I discovered that the book is a genuine page-turner, so much so that the length of it does not seem in any way to be a liability. Solomon’s Puzzle possesses all of the great page-turner qualities: Mystery! Humor! Frustrated love! Diary excerpts! And a plot whose numerous twists and turns are revealed so gradually, so tantalizingly, that the constant temptation is to abandon everything else—eating, sleeping, doing the laundry, feeding the family—to keep on reading and reading until one arrives at the highly satisfying conclusion. It’s worth every minute.
I have my own definition of a really good novel: it’s one that, when I get to the end of it, makes me want to love God more than I did before. It’s not always “Christian novels” that do this for me, and it’s not always “secular novels” that don’t. I’m happy to say that Solomon’s Puzzle does.
Lois Day is a wife, homemaker, and mother of three; a Bible study leader; a teacher of Biblical Greek; and a Third Order Dominican.