The Rovaniemi parents and their nine children keep their deeply traditional faith and old-fashioned culture (no drinking, no dancing, no TV) alive in the modern American Midwest. A normal family in many ways, the Rovaniemis navigate sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and forming their own unique identities in such a large clan. But when two of the children venture forth from the Finnish fundamentalist church to which they all belong, the family fragments and a pressing question arises: do we believe for ourselves or for each other?
In this nuanced portrait of an unconventional family, each chapter is told from the distinctive point of view of a different Romaviemi as they grapple in some way with their relationships to their faith, to one another, and to the outside world, both embracing the security of their community and chafing against its restrictions. The children who eventually reject the church learn that freedom comes at the almost unbearable price of their close family ties, and those who stay struggle daily with the challenges of resisting the temptations of modern culture. What emerges is a haunting depiction not of strangers from a strange faith but ordinary people making their way through the world as best they can. Wholly absorbing and unflinching in its emotional honesty, We Sinners follows each character on their journey of doubt, self-knowledge, acceptance, and, ultimately, survival and introduces a debut writer of enormous talent and range.
I read this book, bit by bit. Each day I would read a chapter of it. I'm not sure why I read it that way. Perhaps it was because each chapter represented a different character. Or, maybe it was because I wasn't sure if I was going to finish the book. You see, this book held my attention at times - like when a few of the children decided to defect from their family's religion (which equated to leaving their family); and other times, I found myself rather bored - did I really care why the father of the family shouldn't become the head of the church (no, I didn't). And I didn't really care how they all smushed themselves into a one-bedroom apartment. This book just wasn't for me. It left me feeling mixed up about whether I truly disliked it or was just indifferent to it. There were some chapters that were definitely a bit more interesting than others, but overall, it was the story's tone that really affected me. It was just too bleak and depressing. I found myself feeling a bit deflated after I read it each day. In fact, my mood became rather melancholy while I read this book, and frankly, I didn't like that.
Hmmm. I'm not sure why the book affected me this way, but it did. I suppose that does show what an emotive author Pylvainen is - which is not a bad thing, right? And truthfully, the tone does match the mood of the characters and their stories. I guess that I just expected a bit of lightness at the end of the story that would turn my frown upside down, and it didn't happen. Not that I only appreciate a happy ending, because I don't. I enjoy a moody book that doesn't end well, now and again, but the reason I like those books has more to do with the story, characters, and writing being so engaging and unputdownable. Unfortunately, We Sinners was the opposite. I had expected an interesting exploration of a family's struggles with maintaining their strict religious ideals in a world that beckons to them with forbidden fruits and instead I got a book about a group of people that are very unhappy in their lives within the church and outside of it. I just feel that the author had a good idea, but fell short in the execution of it.
Overall, this is a book that I won't be forgetting anytime soon, but not for the reasons you think. Instead of remembering the book for its interesting story lines or fascinating characters, I'm going to remember the way it made me feel depressed each time I turned a page. Not sure if that is a good recommendation to read the book, but then again, I'm not sure if I want to recommend it. All I know is that I won't be re-reading this book anytime soon.
Thanks to Henry Holt and Company Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book.