To Be Where You Are - A Review

I’ve wrestled for years with my thoroughgoing enjoyment of Jan Karon’s stories about Mitford, NC and the hijinks of the population of that mythical town. After all, I’ve got an undergraduate degree in English literature and now a Ph.D. Certainly I should prefer cutting edge masterpieces that might someday find their way into the literary canon and are laced with esoteric symbolism. It might be alright if I dip my toes into the mystery stories of someone like Dorothy L. Sayers, who has the academic respectability of an MA from Oxford, but it can’t be ok to enjoy light fiction like Karon’s. Can it?


I’ve decided there is good reason for all of us to like Karon’s stories, even if they don’t rise to the level of literary sophistication of a postmodern novel. (And, perhaps that is another solid reason for us to enjoy them with integrity.) Karon’s stories tell a beautiful story well, reveal something of what it is to be human, and leave us longing for a better world. She has created a world that struggles with the same sullied circumstances that surround our reality, but she weaves in an ever-present theme of hope. Karon shows us what life with hope looks like.

Her latest book, To Be Where You Are, picks up very shortly after her 2015 novel, Come Rain or Come Shine, which told the story of the wedding of Dooley and Lace. This story seems to focus on Lace and Dooley, too, but it weaves in significant story lines from Father Tim and Cynthia. For those who have followed the series from the beginning, this volume manages to involve most of the major characters and bring memories to surface through brief vignettes and casual comments about their activities. In that sense, this volume is like comfort food that reminds us of home and makes the reader feel warm inside.

Much like In the Company of Others, there is no major movement in the plot of To Be Where You Are. However, unlike the novel set in Ireland, Karon’s latest effort is a page turner. Every chapter leaves the reader wondering what will happen next and earnestly wanting to know. The difference is that To Be Where You Are deeply explores that sense of longing for companionship that unites the human experience. Her exploration of this primal theme through people at many stages of life pulls the reader in and makes this a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Without giving some of the more intriguing plot twists away, the theme of companionship comes through on many levels. We see the struggles of newlyweds, Dooley and Lace, as they try to figure out boundaries, communication, and all the things that tend to lead to tension after weddings. The continue with the process of adopting the young child, Jack, who first appeared in the previous story. J. C. Hogan has to work on his level of romantic effort to avoid losing Adele due to indifference. Father Tim and Cynthia explore their unique roles post-retirement, but continue to grow together. These are just some of the many relationships that continue to highlight the desire of friendship, love, and family.

To Be Where You Are reminds us that it is just about enough in life to have someone that loves us. We need food, clothing, and shelter, of course. But humans are social creatures who continually yearn for a sense of belonging. The message is fairly clearly revealed: company is better than accomplishment and the comfort of love needs to be enjoyed, cultivated, and treasured.

In this volume, Karon again explores some of the difficult life issues many of us face. Money troubles, family tension, professional stress, death, infertility, and longing. Writing as a Christian, Karon could easily give in to the temptation to simply pray the struggles away. But she doesn’t. The gospel is evident, both through explicit statement and repeated examples, but it is seldom presented in a heavy-handed way.

Instead of simply making every hard-hearted character experience salvation by the end of the book, Karon just keeps providing illustrations of what the gospel might look like in life. She keeps pointing toward what it looks like to live with hope. That is true throughout the Mitford novels, but in this volume she shows us how living with a sense of gospel hope can help us to love other people—even the unlovely.

That’s the power of this volume. Karon does a masterful job in showing the readers a small piece of what it might look like to be an authentic gospel-saturated Christian. Not the sort who has his or her likeness enshrined in a cathedral window, but the sort of Christian who lives a regular life and wakes up one day to hear the Master say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” That’s the sort of gospel hope that the world needs to see so much more of.

Note: I was granted a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Come Rain or Come Shine - A Review

I know I’m not the only male that likes Jan Karon's books. However, I anticipate that the gender balance is a bit skewed toward the female demographic for her work. In this case, I am glad to be included, even if I’m in the minority.

Jan Karon’s Mitford series continues in her latest book Come Rain or Come Shine with the same sort of winsome storytelling and positive outcomes that have made her a frequent best seller. This latest book, released in September 2015, focuses on the few weeks before Dooley and Lace finally get married.

The storyline has jumped ahead several years since last year’s volume, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. This is probably good, since  the slow progress of years of veterinary training and long distance relationship may have been a bit tedious. The engagement has lasted, Dooley is just graduating from Vet school, and the star-crossed lovers are about to get married.

In many ways, Come Rain or Come Shine parallels the storyline of A Common Life, which tells the story of the wedding of Father Tim and Cynthia. Like that story, Come Rain or Come Shine focuses on the lunacy that is native to a wedding season. Karon conveys the stress of arranging the myriad details mixed with the pressure of making a permanent, life altering decision.

The majority of the story is centered at Meadowgate Farm, which is near Mitford, but far enough away to avoid recounting the history of every one of the Mitford town folk. Unlike many of the other stories, this one is told through many voices and not primarily through Father Tim’s. This appears to be the passing of the torch from Father Tim to his adopted son, Dooley.

The Big Knot, as the wedding is called, is supposed to be a simple matter with just family and friends--a simple affair that is intimate, inexpensive, and memorable. As you might suspect, the storyline is filled with the never ending stream of decisions and details that seem to complicate even the best laid plans of brides and men. Anyone who has tried to execute a wedding, simple or otherwise, will predict many of the wrinkles that arise. However, Karon is able to tell the story well enough that predictability does not detract from the pleasure of reading. In fact, although the reader can anticipate the problems, Karon reveals solutions that are sometimes unexpected and enjoyable.

There are plenty of laughs along the way. A runaway bull threatens the wedding; Harley loses his teeth repeatedly; and some of the usual contrast between the sophisticated transplants to Mitford and the mountain born natives creates tension and highlights the foibles of each. Karon seems to be able to poke at all parties without creating a caricature or demeaning either culture.

This is largely a lighthearted story, though at its edges there is the drama that anyone who knows Mitford would expect. Pauline Leeper, mother to Dooley and others, still hasn’t been fully reconciled to her kids, though there is foreshadowing that it might happen in a future volume. However, this story doesn’t take on some of the major issues that many of Karon’s stories do. We see happy resolution to many of the problems from previous stories. Lace and Dooley are getting married. Sammy Barlowe is playing championship pool on cable television and keeping his nose clean. Father Tim is showing restraint and controlling his diabetes well.

This is an escapist romance. There is enough tension and a few twists and turns throughout that make it an enjoyable read. However, like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, this tale keeps the largest issues of life at bay.

Is this high literature? No. But Karon does well in developing her characters and keeping the storyline moving. A gospel metanarrative is woven through the narrative as Karon gives readers what they long for: a happy ending despite all of the turmoil and trouble.

Come rain or come shine the wedding goes off, though certainly not without the number of hiccups that make such events memorable. The promise Karon leaves us with is that the relationship between Lace and Dooley will also continue, come rain or come shine. Hopefully Karon doesn’t make us wait too long to find out how it goes.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.