Why read Amish romance? Fans of the genre seek structure in a random and liberated world, especially when it comes to relationships between men and women. For general readers, the exotic appeal of a society frozen in time can create entertaining situations when its people collide with the modern world. Valentine Dmitriev’s “Stolen Bride” exceeds the bounds of the “bonnet romance” genre with two plots that weave science and media into the drama of an isolated culture. But devotees of the genre will find that there’s too little religion present, and a general readership may not accept the fragmented situation of a procedural mystery married to a fish-out-of-water tale.
Naomi and Mattie are sisters who want nothing more than to court worthy men and start families of their own. But Mattie’s budding romance with a new convert to the faith may be derailed by her father’s secret, sinful past. And when Naomi’s prodigal suitor whisks her away to a different life in New York, does she forget her obligations to God and to her family? There’s barely room for both story lines in 274 pages, and the two sisters scarcely cross paths outside of a laborious introduction full of long flashbacks and too many characters that come and go unexpectedly.
Dmitriev is an experienced and knowledgeable writer, and her grip on Amish culture is credible and authoritative. Over the course of forty chapters, what initially feels like fetishism eventually reads as respect and genuine affection for a foreign culture anchored in an America that is tolerant but not always accepting. Dmitriev gets all the little details right, from the hairstyles to the vocabulary, all the way through to the complicated reality that the Amish must rely on the kindness of outsiders and the benefits of their technology. But a major problem with the book as a whole is that Dmitriev communicates this information in a workmanlike and clinical manner. There’s no poetry when we learn that braids signify a girl is too young to marry, or that people opposed to electricity have no problem with mobile phones for emergencies. Some of these facts pop up randomly in the middle of long prose sections, as if they were meant to be footnotes or academic sidebars. This stilted presentation has the effect of making our omniscient narrator sound less than all-knowing, a lost outsider in an alien world.
Thankfully, the story comes alive when the action moves to New York. Naomi’s transformation from Amish wallflower to Fifth Avenue fashion maven is plausible, mostly because she doesn’t live on the runway. Her brief time as a model is believable precisely because it’s so brief, and her ultimate destination as a workaday corporate fashion buyer is anything but a fairytale ending. Sadly, Mattie’s forbidden romance back at home is the more interesting of the pair, and has the potential to be a real exploration of gender boundaries and faith-driven decision making as prescribed by the genre. But a complicated subplot involving paternity testing undermines the religious subtext that defines this type of fiction. Mendelian genetics bizarrely block God from being a meaningful character with any impact on the two young women.
It’s very difficult to recommend the book. Amish romance aficionados are not likely to put up with the way “Stolen Bride” deviates from the norm, even if those turns make for better fiction overall. Likewise, general readers aren’t likely to become fans of the genre after reading this particular work, because the dramatic components of the two stories would be considered derivative in any other format.
Stolen Bride, by Valentine Dmitriev. Published 2011 by CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1463665920. 278 pages, softcover.
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