The Outsider by Ann H. Gabhart

  • The Outsider by Ann H. GabhartTitle: The Outsider
  • Author: Ann H. Gabhart
  • Series: Book 1 in the Shaker series
  • Genre(s): Inspirational, Historical
  • Publisher: Fleming H. Revell Company, August 2008
  • Purchase: Amazon, free (regular $9.99)
  • Tropes: Insta-Love, Star-Crossed Lovers
  • Quick blurb: Local doctor disturbs the peace of a reclusive religious community.
  • Quick review: A fascinating glimpse into Shaker life, but dragged down by inconsistencies and narrative flow problems.
  • Grade: C-

Ooooh, free stuff! Free is good. Sometimes.

For as long as she can remember, Gabrielle Hope has had the gift of knowing–visions that warn of things to come. When she and her mother joined the Pleasant Hill Shaker community in 1807, the community embraced her gift. But Gabrielle fears this gift, for the visions are often ones of sorrow and tragedy. When one of these visions comes to pass, a local doctor must be brought in to save the life of a young man, setting into motion a chain of events that will challenge Gabrielle’s loyalty to the Shakers. As she falls deeper into a forbidden love for this man of the world, Gabrielle must make a choice. Can she experience true happiness in this simple and chaste community? Or will she abandon her brothers and sisters for a life of the unknown? Soulful and filled with romance, The Outsider lets readers live within a bygone time among a unique and peculiar people. This tender and thought-provoking story will leave readers wanting more from this writer.

An inspirational book blurb that calls a religious sect “peculiar”? Not a good sign.

I’m really glad I got this as a free promotion, and didn’t pay the (ridiculous) full price of $10. As much as I wanted to like The Outsider, it ended up being kind of a dud.

On the plus side…

The descriptions of the Shaker worship/prayer practices and day-to-day life were vivid and kept me reading to the end. The author treated this misunderstood faith community with respect, never devolving into a movie-of-the-week treatment. The emotional and spiritual impact of communal living was especially well done.

The hero and heroine were complex and conflicted, but still likeable. It was a love-at-first-sight scenario, but it wasn’t the dopey lightning bolt version, and their HEA was hard-won after serious soul-searching and growth on both sides.

Secondary characters were also a strong point, with great reciprocal impact between them and the main characters; the H/H were profoundly influenced by the people around them. In particular, Gabrielle’s disintegrating relationship with Sister Mercy was really poignant, as was Brice’s tentative friend/mentor role with Nathan and Seth.

The themes of faith vs. trust and personal vs. communal faith were woven seamlessly throughout the narrative, without a hit-you-over-the-head MORAL OF THE STORY, SEE WHAT I DID THERE? in the last chapter common in so many inspirationals.

Grief scenes were surprisingly moving:

“Yea, you are right, Sister Gabrielle. Becca is not there in that cold grave. I am. I feel as if every clod of dirt fell on my face. They didn’t bury Becca. They buried me.”

Pass the tissues, please….

On the negative side….

I’m not one to insist on Biblical names in inspirationals, but main characters named Gabrielle and Brice were just WAY too YA/chick-lit for me. A quick Googling shows that they were probably historically authentic, but “Gabrielle” seems much more plantation belle than backwoods Kentucky, and “Brice” just triggers a mental vision of Animal House Frat Boy.

The disjointed flow nearly killed it for me – I was invested enough in the story to finish, but it wasn’t a smooth ride. Numerous short flashbacks interrupted internal monologues, making for some forced and awkward transitions.

Much too often, the tenets of Shaker theology were forced into the mouths of the elders. Yes, I know that’s what the elders are supposed to do. However, the elders frequently mentioned that Gabrielle was a long-time member (six years, ages 13-19) and well-versed in Shaker beliefs, and yet they lectured her like a newcomer simply to info-dump for the reader. It would have worked much better to have those critical explanatory passages as dialogue between Gabrielle and conflicted Nathan, Gabrielle and unbeliever Brice, or Gabrielle and an adolescent Sister, as they examine or explain their beliefs. An even better option would have been plot points with specific actions in which the theology would be applied.

There was an abrupt change in tone halfway through that kicked me out of my reading trance several times. I didn’t mind the change in focus/POV, because the story required it at that point, but switching suddenly from the quiet Kentucky countryside to bloody battlefields was pretty jarring.

And the info-dumping regarding military maneuvers was completely unnecessary. It’s great that the author did her research, but inspie readers don’t need regurgitated factoids about feuding generals, skirmish dates and field positions. If I wanted that, I’d read one of those overstuffed Civil War sagas. The author should have focused on Brice’s struggle to retain his humanity, and the atmosphere of the battlefield and medical area.

The bit about the porcupine was pretty funny, though 🙂 I need to look that up to see if it really happened….

On the fence-sitting “I want more”…

Villainous Sister Helen was intriguing, because we ALL know someone like that <shudder>, but she was oddly one-dimensional. Her backstory was hinted at, making me want more than the “bitter, envious spinster” stock character. I needed an explanation of how the elders could be so blindingly oblivious to her beady-eyed, nostril-flaring, steaming-from-the-ears jealousy. And I know a comeuppance at the end would have been wildly misplaced and contrived, but I still wanted it to happen!

On the other hand, I loved Gabrielle’s internal turmoil during the suffocating Close Supervision, and her one “you GO, girl!” moment of defending herself against Helen’s relentless backstabbing.

Or maybe I wanted less….

The hero’s glossed-over backstory as a former child captive was a huge missed opportunity – it seemed to be wedged in only as a device to get Brice and Gabrielle’s estranged father together.

The length seemed wrong somehow; it would have worked better as a shorter, tighter novella, or expanded to really build the H/H relationship even more. And while the angst level wasn’t overwhelming, more true drama would have provided some balance.

Now let me tell you what I REALLY think….

On the whole, not bad – worthwhile for the characters and especially the glimpse into the Shakers. But definitely not one I’d recommend to my literary-snob friends.

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