With You Always; Rena Olsen

With You Always; Rena Olsen
Genre: Christian suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 339
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor, Slytherin

When Julia meets Bryce, she is smitten. He is the perfect guy–charming, sweet, and handsome. Together they begin their life’s journey and become members of the church that Bryce and his family belong to. Soon his family is having a huge say in their marriage, from the details of the wedding planning to how Julia should behave as a wife. But are they overstepping their boundaries? As Bryce starts to reveal his true nature, step by step, Julia finds herself becoming isolated from everything she loves about her life, from her job to her nephews and parents, giving Bryce and the curch her only attention. Eventually, there is no way out as her dream come true becomes a nightmare. Is living with Bryce the fairy tale she thought it would be? Or is it a trap?

I have to admit: With You Always is one of the most unique psychological suspense novels I’ve picked up recently. As a Christian myself, I wasn’t expecting the church to be such a prominent aspect of the book (probably because it seemed to be omitted entirely from the description…looking at you, BookBub). I was expecting something about a Christian cult, and that’s kind of what I got. But it’s also a unique Christian suspense novel, a subgenre I had no idea existed.

Now, the first 1/3 of the book was pretty slow. Bryce is so charming and perfect that the chapters that we do see of them dating are pretty bland. It takes a while to go through them and Olsen herself summarizes at points. And they decide to tie the knot so quickly that I have a hard time getting invested at the beginning. On the other hand, I see why readers would want a solid foundation. However it does pick up. Even though it’s not an action packed journey, it crackles with underlying suspense that builds up as readers move along.

Bryce attends the Church of the Life, a massive institution that includes a church, a school, a cafe, many Bible study groups, and a mysterious “Gathering” which is by invitation only. It’s run by the Reverend and his wife, Nancy, whom Bryce considers his parents. Julia, of course, starts joining him at church because it’s a strong part of his life and begins to delve deeper into the faith herself. Then her marriage begins to take a turn. Olsen studied psychology and that knowledge is evident throughout. She goes into great detail of how Julia is duped into believing that everything she does is her fault through Bryce and his family. Eventually she doesn’t even need Bryce to tell her that she’s wrong about some things; she just believes it internally. There were several times where she could make a clean cut getaway and I wanted to scream at her a bit, but I can also understand why she didn’t, because by then she truly believed she’d be doing wrong. Her thought processes are well thought out. These same processes are depicted in watching her isolate herself from her job, her friends and her family. You want to be frustrated with her for making these choices, but at the same time, you can’t be.

Christianity is an important part of the novel–not something you usually see in suspense. Olsen acknowledges that bad churches do exist, but there is still plenty of good. For example, Julia likes her Bible study with Jenny until Bryce makes her stop going. She continues to do Bible studies when her marriage reaches its lowest point. While there are sinister things going on, there are positives too. Julia does not even give up on her faith at the end of the novel. I liked that Olsen didn’t depict faith as a bad thing, and instead, something that could be manipulated by people who aren’t good.

This novel unfortunately doesn’t do much to end my “strong ending” slump. It leaves a lot to be desired, and like many suspense novels, pretty much ends at the point of no return. This leaves considerable unanswered questions about Bryce’s motivation and why his behavior changed, his family, what kind of things the church was really up to, why the Reverend did what he did during the Gathering, and how things end for Julia and her family. I personally am a big fan of the “where are they now” epilogue, so maybe part of it is just me, but I’d like things to be wrapped up a bit more. (Edit: After I published this post, I saw that Goodreads reviewers are saying the same thing, not just about this novel but for others I’ve read this year. It’s clear to me by this point that readers want questions answered if they invest their time in a story, so hopefully this ending slump will end soon!)

With You Always stands out among recent suspense novels for the subject matter. I had a hard time putting it down, but I would really, really love to see more endings that tied things together. I’m tired of having to decide outcomes for myself, and I do ultimately buy books so the author can tell me the story. Still, it was a unique spin on an abusive relationship tale with well-written psychological tension that will keep readers turning pages, knowing that the slow beginning will be worth it. It’s not an action-packed thriller, but it’s suspenseful all the same.

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Take Me to Church

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. Kate was seeing red flags in Julia and Bryce’s relationship from the beginning. What were some of them, do you think? Would you rush into a marriage if the guy seemed perfect?
  2. Many victims of abuse get the same question: “Why don’t you just leave?” Why couldn’t Julia feel as if she could just leave, despite opportunities? What do you think you would have done?
  3. Events such as the Gathering are seen as good by those who attend–but it is not a Godly experience. Christians: have you ever felt a true connection to God in your life? How can you tell if it’s God speaking or if it’s someone else?
  4. Think about backstories for the Reverend and Nancy. What in their life led them to this point? Why did the Reverend decide to just take in Bryce off the street without regard to his parents? Do you think either of them knew God? Why did they choose to take advantage of so many people rather than to truly lead them to Christ? Are his motivations good, at all?
  5. Have you ever been duped by someone of faith? How did it change your belief system?
  6. Is Bryce a good character who had just been brainwashed into the Reverend’s plans and beliefs? Or was he a victim of his past, or something else?
  7. The events after the end are largely left to interpretation. Where do you see Julia’s life going from here? Do you think her family will take her in so she can start over, or does she have a long battle ahead with the legal system and prison time? Do you think the Reverend and Nancy will try and make her pay or frame her for murder?


Should Christians Read Thrillers?

I recently came across a blog post where the blogger wondered if some certain Christian books could qualify as Christian. The books had some edgy themes that the faith doesn’t really encourage.

I used to think the same way. I avoided all these types of books, thinking they wouldn’t be very clean entertainment. But are they as bad as they sound? With recurring themes such as cheating, killing one another, and keeping secrets and lies, it doesn’t sound that way.

I find that most people read thrillers to be surprised. They like the heart-pounding suspense or solving a mystery. To sum up, we read these books for the excitement, or an escape.

First off, the main characters don’t always condone the behavior. Granted, not all characters are good people. But how many of us are perfect? We’ve all done things that we shouldn’t. I feel, too, that not only are the characters avoiding the people that display this behavior, but the readers aren’t supporting it either. They’re holding their breath, hoping that the good people win in the end. Heck, even the Bible has many moments it doesn’t encourage. Just because Judas betrays Jesus doesn’t mean the Bible condones cheating. Something being written about doesn’t mean the author agreeing with it. Actually, a lot of the thrillers I’ve read recently serve as warnings against the behaviors displayed. I’ll often finish the book feeling grateful for the life I currently have.

These type of books also often deal with larger issues. You warns against social media use. Obsession warns us how envy can tear lives apart. Never Let You Go deals with relationships. In fact, many of the ones I’ve read deal with abusive relationships in some degree. This is a very real issue, and in many thrillers, readers can go along and root for the characters to go on and have a better life. It really opens your eyes to the issues and what these women content with. So the overall message is not necessarily harmful. Nobody here is rooting for the bad guy. That was how I originally thought of these types of books.

Still, there are times when us Christians need to watch what we read and continue holding themselves to that moral standard. This may be up to you. Do Christian readers find themselves sympathizing with or rooting for the villain, like Joe Goldberg of You fame? Do they find themselves thinking about how exhilarating cheating on a marriage could be after reading about the exciting affair a side character committed? Maybe it’s time to take a break from these types of novels. For me, I personally draw the line at murder mysteries, particularly the light-hearted ones. Murder is a thing that really happens to people and I don’t like to make light of that. Whereas with thrillers, we sympathize with the main character (usually) and we hold our breaths, hoping that everything turns out for the best–and we’re stunned when it doesn’t. Ultimately, that’s what I want anyway.

Of course, not all characters are likable and that’s a different story. Take Pekkanen’s The Perfect Neighbors, where several have dirty secrets to hide. I didn’t feel like I wanted any of them to win. Same with A Simple Favor...nobody was likable and all deserved what was coming to them. I didn’t enjoy those books as much. As long as the reader can separate good from bad, and realize that maybe that the characters aren’t role models, there isn’t a problem. However, I feel like those books aren’t as enjoyable anyway. There need to be some well-intentioned characters for me to like a book, but that isn’t always obvious before I delve into one. It’s very easy to accidentally pick up a racy book when that content isn’t advertised, like I did with Kiss Quotient. It happens.

I think that if Christians are looking for a good, wholesome book where the character is perfect, they will never finish that quest. You might as well give up reading altogether. But that’s because we’re all flawed. And isn’t that why we read: to go on a journey with a flawed character and watch them change over time? We can hope, anyway. I think that if readers are reading for the sake of trying to figure out a mystery, or just to be excited, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in some cases we should still be watchful of content and be alert to books that are making light of serious issues. That to me is where the problem occurs.

Christianity has become so much more about judging others’ behavior than it is about God and faith and I think that needs to change. It might start with books.