Is there anything more synonymous with romance novels than conservative Christianity? Of course there is. Most things, actually. If I said “what do you associate with romance novels?” you’d come up with a bunch of stuff before you said religion: horses, regency era England, the Navy, bondage, handsome veterinarians, and so on. The only thing romance and Christianity really have in common is an affinity for tall, dark-haired guys with solid carpentry skills. But there’s room for everyone under the romance tent, including the God-fearing folk. Not only are Christian romance novels a thing, they’re nobling trying to help us answer the age-old question – what would Jesus read?
Type: “Inspirational romance,” which supposedly means religious romance, but more accurately it means Christian romance about mostly white people. In fairness, a lot of romance is very white, but this seems to be especially true of the inspirational subgenre. There’s also no sex or gay characters, but luckily these books make up for it with plenty of praying and scenes set at and around churches.
The couple: Riley Callahan has been in love with his best friend Paige Warren since they were teenagers – so much so that when she started dating his older brother, he enlisted in the Marines to get away from the pain. As you have likely guessed, given that Paige is the female lead, his tour of duty lasted way longer than relationship between Paige and the brother. Oops. For her part, Paige is fairly non-descript blonde woman who likes animals. She seems sort of lonely, mostly as a result of losing her father to an untimely death and losing her mother to the fact that she was actually not her mother (you better believe that’s a storyline in the book.) Being essentially an orphan, she’s been taken-in by the Callahan family, so it actually works out really well that Riley is in love with her because it means they don’t have to add any new people to Thanksgiving dinner.
The story: Riley was totally going to tell Paige he was in love with her when he got home form the Marines. BUT he’s lost a leg during his tour in Afghanistan, and his plans for telling are ruined because in his mind, she deserves better than an amputee who can’t go lobstering. I know that sounds silly and that she should get to decide for herself, but the degree to which he believes it is really the crux of the whole book, so just go with it, ok? Anyway, Paige is helping to take care of him while her recovers, which is terrible because Riley thinks she pities him and that he looks weak. There are a lot of feelings in this book to cover up the fact that the story is a little weak. Paige has a job where she helps animals, and the animal shelter is in financial trouble. This is partly so that Paige has something to do besides realizes she’s in love with Riley, and partly so that there’s an excuse to have a bachelor auction. Romance writers love bachelor auctions.
How’s the sex? Well, obviously, no one’s getting past first base in this book. Romance novels are known for their sex, and most do have some sex scenes included. But not all of them do, and many of the ones that don’t aren’t Christian. So what’s the difference here? Allow me to explain.
There are three ways to avoid sex in a romance novel: 1) Wait to get the characters together until the very end so they essentially don’t have time for sex before the end (your Jane Austen, your Disney movies, etc); 2) insinuate that the characters are having sex, but “fade to black” and skip to the next morning instead of writing those scenes a’la PG-13 movie; or 3) have your two characters who are in a romantic relationship behave as If they are teenagers in a 90s sitcom and just never have sex. Just a Kiss and many other Inspirational romances employ option 3. They’re waiting for marriage because they’d rather get into heaven than get laid. For some reason.
Is this book for you? There’s a decent chance that if you’re reading a BYT romance novel review column, this book is not going to be a perfect fit for you. But if you’re looking for Christian romance, Denise Hunter is generally a good pick. She’s a good writer and although Just A Kiss has plenty of “turning to God in hard time” in it, Hunter isn’t overtly judgmental of sexually active adults or of non-Christians as some other inspirational romance. I realize that’s a pretty low bar, but I like to give credit where it’s due.
Given that the Christian message isn’t terribly overbearing, my biggest issue with this book was that the conflict was weak. I get that Riley has PTSD and there’s some interesting family history stuff going on here on both sides, but I have trouble getting behind a book that seems like it would be shortened by at least half if the two primary characters would just have a goddamn conversation. Given the circumstances here, I would have settled for a gosh-darn conversation.
Conclusion: As Christian romance goes, Denise Hunter is a decent choice, but instead of Just A Kiss, stop on your way home from bible study and pick up the previous book in the series – The Goodbye Bride. That one at least has a mysterious amnesia storyline and someone bailing right before a wedding. In inspirational romance, that’s about as soapy as you’re going to get until some church adopts 50 Shades of Grey as its new bible. God-willing.