Modern Romance for the Modern Mormon Woman

I started hearing about Melanie Jacobson early last year when her first book, The List, was published by Covenant. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t read either of that book or her second, Not My Type, until both books became finalists in the romance category for last year’s Whitney Awards. Having two books as finalists is an impressive feat, especially for a first time author, and I was not disappointed by either book. Neither of Jacobson’s books won last year, but in my opinion the competition between them and the eventual winner, Carla Kelly’s Borrowed Light, was quite close. I think in the end it just came down to the fact that Kelly’s book was a bit more polished, likely due to her years of experience as a nationally-published author. I have a feeling that we will be seeing more of Jacobson in future Whitney competitions.

Jacobson’s work shows that a book can be both entertaining and well-crafted. I also think that, in addition to their solid writing and fun storylines, her books speak to contemporary Mormon women in a way that few other similar types of books have done in the past. The young-adult heroines of her novels don’t fall into either of the stereotypical categories that seem to be assigned to single adults: the woman whose only dream is marriage and who considers herself a spinster at 22 or the woman who spurns marriage and children for the worldly trappings of a prestigious career. Jacobson’s protagonists exemplify the many contradictions and choices that young single adult Mormon women face today.

For example, Not My Type begins with Pepper Spicer trying to figure out what to do with her life now that she is 23, has a BA in English with no work experience, is deeply in debt from the wedding she almost had until her fiancé broke up with her, and is living at home with her parents. Like many young Mormon women, Pepper got an education but didn’t really plan on using it because she had a boyfriend and her goal had been to “marry, settle down, have babies, and support Landon in his career” (pg 8). With the help of her family and friends, Pepper starts finding herself and discovering what she wants, including a great job that she loves. In fact, it is her job as a writer that both introduces her to her future love interest Tanner and provides a connection between them. One aspect of Jacobson’s books that I appreciated is that all the young women in them are fully-dimensional characters with lives filled with friends, family, jobs, and hobbies. It is through these things that Jacobson’s protagonists find love and build relationships with men—a much more realistic and healthy view of romance than that found in many similar books. Each of Jacobson’s books depicts a young woman who must find herself and become self-actualized, and only then can she have a healthy relationship.

Despite the potential life lessons that can be found in these books, Jacobson’s tone is never didactic. She doesn’t judge her characters and she is not presenting them as object lessons. The books clearly have a Mormon audience in mind and are full of references to LDS ideals and culture, especially the particular quirks of singles wards, online dating, and young single adult activities. However, LDS doctrine is dealt with using a fairly light touch and there are no miraculous moments of divine intervention. As mentioned, most of the growth in the protagonists is achieved through their making good choices, listening to the advice of their family and friends, and their involvement in work and other interests. Although the idea of marriage looms underneath all the action in the books, as it does in everything having to do with single adults in the Church, none of the books ends with a wedding or even a proposal. For Jacobson, the pursuit of love and the acknowledgement of mutual attraction is a worthy stopping point. This is, again, refreshing compared to many other LDS romances and to the way the idea of marriage is often handled in LDS culture. Too often discourse about marriage, both official and unofficial, focuses simply on the end goal without much discussion of how hard it can be to get there.

There are a few flaws with Jacobson’s books. Although her female characters are well-developed, I felt that the men were not as clearly drawn and it wasn’t always clear what was attractive about them. The third book, Twitterpated¸ suffered from a thin plot that didn’t have much conflict in it (though Jacobson did gracefully acknowledge in a comment on another blog that this was actually her first book which was being published after her first two books were successful). Although Jacobson writes well and her books are cleanly edited the prose is straight-forward and focused on character and plot-development, not literary artistry. The lack of overt didactism will most likely bother some readers, and I can’t imagine non-LDS readers enjoying them or even understanding them. These things aside, I think that she should be given more attention for her ability to write incisively about modern Mormon culture with humor and grace.

Melanie Jacobson’s books are pure entertainment, what I like to call ‘dessert books’. However, I feel that this label can be a bit misleading. In a world full of Twinkies these are hand-crafted artisan chocolates. Most of us want to enjoy a treat now and then, why not make it a satisfying one?

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