One more “Taken by Storm” review
“Baby I got sick this morning
A sea was storming inside of me
And baby, I think I’m capsizing
The waves are rising and rising
And when I get that feeling
I want. . .”
—lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,”
the theme song of Michael’s char
I struggle to write a review of the book “Taken by Storm” because my reactions swing wildly from critiquing it fairly as a piece of YA literature and having an emotional reaction as an LDS reader. I’ve divided my comments into “Review” and “General Reaction from an LDS Reader,” but please forgive any muddled thoughts that combine these two arenas. Finally, just to show I’m not trying to rain all over Angela Morrison’s parade, I’ve added a playlist of songs I dedicate to the Leesie and Michael characters. (Because that’s what happens when you read this book and then listen to pop music at the gym at the crack of dawn.)
“Taken by Storm” is the story of a romance between Michael, a diver from Washington whose parents drowned in a tropical storm, and Leesie, an LDS girl who attends the high school in rural Washington where Michael now lives with his grandmother. At its best, the story shows readers the evolution of two kinds of love—Leesie’s religious standards dictate that she adhere to a strict moral code of chastity, but she has never been attracted enough to anyone to want to express affection physically, so her standards have never been particularly challenged. Michael has never slowed down long enough to discover how to love a girl without taking her clothes off, or even contemplate the possibility. As their relationship develops, they discover how much of their personal value system they are willing to compromise to keep each other happy. Thus, at worst, “Storm” is a very long, sensual kissing scene.
“Taken by Storm” is very contemporary in that much of the story unfolds through Internet chat logs, Leesie’s poetry and Michael’s dive logs. Younger readers will likely find this appealing and novel; I wonder if this structure is the result of most teens doing their reading online now, gathering information through lists of bullet-points and search results. Maybe the YA market no longer wants to sit through passages of ordinary sentences unless there are hypertext links to click on.
While the poems and chats and dive logs were novel as literary devices, they were also a bit distracting at times. Michael’s dive logs are an interesting way to document his progress through his grief, but they are sometimes too metaphorical (who rates “depth” of conversations?) to be believable. While much of Leesie’s poetry was tender and appealing, for a few events (especially when she goes to her branch president to discuss her repentance process) I would have preferred to read regular prose. For other moments, such as when she receives a gloating phone call from Michael’s one-night stand, the poetry allows readers to see into Leesie’s heartache without having to witness more graphic sensuality, so it works well.
The frequent changing of story-telling method and perspective makes for a fast-paced, quickly developed tale with enough ups and downs to keep readers interested. Since the primary conflict in the story is Leesie and Michael’s vastly differing values, readers don’t have to wait for much build-up before the conflict is in full-force.
When readers hear from Michael, he uses a lowercase “i” as his personal pronoun, which I find highly distracting. I feel like he’s texting. I don’t care how common it is to leave out punctuation or capitalization for the sake of modernity, I just can’t believe the prose sections of a novel are the right place to incorporate this sort of literary device. Unless you’re e.e.cummings or k.d. lang, you should use capital letters.
There’s plenty of praise and criticism for “Taken by Storm” related to how “real” it is. I’ll add to both sides. I love a YA novel tackling a religious conflict. It is refreshing to read about a character of faith—any faith—and that is novel and appealing and what makes this book a stand-out in the genre.
I love the location descriptions, especially since I have been to many of them. I also like how the isolated, rural location adds to the conflict; if Leesie were growing up in Utah, or even in a metropolitan city just about anywhere else in the world, she would have more LDS associates and a more diverse high school population. Leesie would be less stranded and Michael the New Guy would be less interesting. Setting this story in “Teacup” is both relatable and effective as a plot thickener.
I love the ending. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who cares to read the book, so I won’t. I do appreciate the effort it takes to write some suspense and build-up to a dramatic ending that doesn’t just make it all feel dragged out pointlessly. The ending, in many ways, was the most realistic part of the whole story.
The religious conflict depicted makes “Taken by Storm” unique in the YA genre. In too many other ways, however, “Storm” is the same story of sensuality as too many others in the teen section. I read a lot of YA fiction, and this is my measuring stick for how good any of it is: Would I buy this book for my nieces (ages 14 and 16) or my kids’ favorite baby-sitter (18), who is like a little sister to me? They are all practicing members of the LDS Church and hold the same values Leesie means to in “Taken by Storm.” I buy them books regularly, especially when I find a good one I think will be appealing and uplifting.
Now, I am not one to shy away from conversations about intimacy or blush over difficult conversations— I have been a newspaper reporter in the past and am now a breastfeeding counselor, so it’s not like I shy away from the nitty-gritty of life. I suppose I am trying to clarify that while I hold LDS standards I do not consider myself a prude. But—this is the technicality—I am not convinced there is value in wallowing around in “reality” for the sake of entertainment when it is not uplifting. There is too much lip-sucking sensuality in “Taken by Storm” for me to give it to the teen girls in my life. They need to read well-told stories about girls like them who overcome challenges, but they don’t need to read about close calls in parked cars or girls whose values get worn down while trying to rescue uncouth boys. However “real” those stories might be, they are not encouraging.
I’ve read enough YA novels to know the sensuality in “Taken by Storm” would be considered mild by most, but I’m not “most” and neither are my favorite young women.
I wish very much the story of “Storm” could have been told with less skin. The physicality of Michael and Leesie’s relationship is so paramount that it becomes all their relationship is about. This cheapens the whole story and reduces the more significant conflict of faith—and makes Michael out to be downright sleazy. The story itself is uplifting, but it got dragged through the mud and that makes it disappointing.
More Generalized Reaction of an LDS Reader:
It is easy to root for Leesie because Morrison makes it clear that Leesie has some big goals and motives but is thoroughly pitched as the ultimate underdog. Characters must be real and therefore flawed, especially in a coming-of-age-type story (or else a story about them growing up would be meaningless) but some aspects of characterization and cultural details in the book seem highly UN-real.
I cannot buy Michael’s cocky attitude and overconfidence when it comes to womanizing. I get that Michael’s casual relationship concepts are inherited from his father, but this kid acts like he’s been living in a nightclub for the last 10 years and is preparing for a career on a used car lot. It’s hard to suspend disbelief when Michael’s ongoing assumption is that it’s always up to him whether or not he will have a romantic relationship with any given female. I know a lot of 17-year-old boys of varying backgrounds and value systems, and even the experienced ones are plenty insecure. Michael apparently believes his own publicity agent’s praise a little too much, since he is so aware of his awesome chick-magnet hair and lanky irresistibility. Even as the only child of doting parents, I would expect his character to be a little more self-aware and a little less full of bravado, although perhaps Morrison exaggerates this character trait to illustrate Leesie is the first girl who has made him second-guess himself at all. I swear the dude’s theme song is “Sexual Healing.” Whenever he messages Leesie “i need you” it never means he needs to talk about his grief and trauma, only that he’d like to lose it in a tidal wave of hormones. I lost respect for him early and never really regained it.
Leesie frustrates me to no end. I can’t say she is a good role model for LDS readers, and I can’t say she is a good representation of an LDS girl for readers of other faiths. She is so caught up in following arbitrary rules that she forgets the purpose for the rules, and never really explains her motives to Michael. He’s left to see her religion as restrictive and her God as vengeful.
I don’t get the “Ice Queen” angle, either. Does Leesie really not have any other friends at school before Michael arrives? Where’s her brother in all of this? Does maintaining chastity really make her a complete social outcast? I find that hard to believe, but Leesie is not much fun, sulking around and dividing her associates into Virtuous Me and the Wicked World. Perhaps the other chaste and sober girls are drinking Slurpees and going to the movies in Spokane while Leesie assumes they, too, are mean tramps. Other people have strong values too, but Leesie seems to miss that. (If I were to buy into her perspective or the stereotypes in the story, I’d have to believe the diving culture is one of casual sensuality. . . . And I bet a lot of divers out there would take issue with that broad generalization.)
However unfair, it’s always fun to tease someone who takes herself too seriously, and I’m afraid Leesie does. The scene of driving over hills is the only glimpse readers get of a Leesie who might have fun. Generally, though, Leesie lives her values like she is a constantly suffering martyr, and this is a deeply discouraging message for young female readers. I understand she is hassled for being different, and I understand she is young and her perspectives on life and her faith are maturing, but why does she have to be portrayed as so unhappy and apologetic to live her testimony? Her commitment to her faith should make her joyful, but it sure doesn’t seem to, even in spite of the conflict she feels.
I was disappointed that Leesie’s college plans were a big secret from Michael. What would he expect her to do after they graduate? Major in making out with him? He comes from a family wealthy enough to afford diving and traveling; surely his parents anticipated university studies for him, too. Even if his college plans are on hold because of his grief, he would expect Leesie to have her own plans. The fact they never discuss this aspect of the future makes their romance less meaningful to me; this would have been a big part of them getting to know each other and becoming real friends. But they stop talking about real things too soon and substitute all analysis for physicality. Bummer.
As an LDS reader, I wonder what card she hands to Michael that he can’t see in the darkened car. Is it a “For the Strength of Youth” card, which many LDS youth carry in their wallets to remind them of their standards? Many of the rules Leesie tries to follow are “family rules,” not general LDS standards, and I worry a bit that readers of other faiths will get the mistaken impression that “maintaining chastity” to Mormons means “doing only what you can do with both feet on the floor or with the width of scriptures between you.” The LDS “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet states “When dancing, avoid full body contact with your partner. Do not use positions or moves that are suggestive of sexual behavior.” There is no mention of keeping the distance of a Book of Mormon or any other urban legend about LDS standards.
Real LDS standards are much broader than Leesie’s many, detailed rules. In the “Sexual Purity” section, the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet reads, “Before marriage, do not do anything to arouse the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage. Do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person’s body, or touch the sacred, private parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. Do not allow anyone to do that with you. Do not arouse these emotions in your own body.
“In cultures where dating or courting is acceptable, always treat your date with respect, never as an object to be used for your lustful desires. Stay in areas of safety where you can easily control your physical feelings. Do not participate in talk or activities that arouse sexual feelings.”
In “Taken by Storm,” Leesie tries to follow the letter of the law but has completely lost the spirit of the law. Who cares where her tongue or her feet are if she has lost control in every other way? She claims to be motivated by hopes for a temple marriage, but she sets herself up to break her standards again and again by not staying “in areas of safety” and arousing “the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage.” She clings to arbitrary “rules” as if they will save her from temptation, but she makes the choice to be tempted over and over again. I suspect she comes out of this relationship a bit humbler about her abilities to resist temptation.
Why does Leesie feel solely responsible for rescuing Michael from his grief? In such a small town, I’d expect a school guidance counselor to be all over the situation, and grandma’s friends to be ready to help, too. Grandma doesn’t seem to have any friends, and the school doesn’t seem to have a guidance counselor. If Leesie’s family knows Michael’s grandmother, I would expect them to put her in touch with LDS Family Services for low-cost grief counseling or some other helpful hook-up. Leesie is close to her family; why don’t they have Michael over more? If Leesie is active enough in her LDS congregation to attend weekly activities and dances, I would expect to meet (at least in passing) some other LDS leaders and youth. Where are the friends of her missionary from Spokane? They might have been good friends for Michael. We only meet the rather unsupportive Kimbo69 on Leesie’s Internet chat log. “Storm” is a story primarily about two characters, but where is the supporting cast? I realize I am quibbling about details that would have cramped the story, but some aspects of the tale just wouldn’t have played out in real life the way they were described.
As a last grumble at LDS inaccuracies, I was surprised to read about the two inappropriately-dressed girls who crashed the dance. In reality, they would never have gotten past the church foyer before a chaperone stopped them. Nearly all dance guests would have a dance card that they and their bishop (or friend’s bishop) signed stating they had been interviewed and agreed to follow the rules and standards of attending an LDS dance. At the dozens of LDS Church-sponsored youth dances I have attended as both a teen and a chaperone in four states and Canada, there have always been at least two adults near the entryway to welcome guests and check dress code compliance. There is usually a bishop nearby, too, ready to do any last-minute interviews to give a dance admittance card to any friends of other faiths or from other areas who decide at the last minute to attend. Often, there’s a box of extra clothes with jackets and neckties and even a frumpy long skirt or two in case someone goofs and doesn’t get the dress code right. But it’s widely publicized, adhered to and enforced, and nobody wants to have to take any spare clothing from the Nerdy Box of Shame. Hanging out in the parking lot would also be next to impossible with chaperones all about, but please don’t anyone think an LDS youth dance is some kind of social police state. It’s more like running into all your parents’ relentlessly cheery friends and needing to greet and hug every one of them. The moment of Leesie introducing Michael to the temple is important and well-done. Still, unless Leesie and Michael had an invisibility cloak, it’s unlikely they would just walk out of the dance early and stand in the parking lot without being interrupted.
Why didn’t an editor catch the use of “unthaw”? That’s the ultimate Utah-ism. I guess Leesie’s parents must be from Utah for her to use this “word.”
The paperback cover is pretty, but the model is wearing a scoopy tank Leesie would never choose to wear alone.
Of course “Taken by Storm” is a work of fiction and of course not every detail of every moment will be addressed in the story—that would be impossibly cumbersome. But I balk a bit when the plot asks me to suspend disbelief about unlikely events related to my own faith and culture.