Review: The Element of Love by Mary Connealy
#1 This is a long review, so pull up a chair and grab a bowl of popcorn. You’ll be here awhile. #2 When I read a review, I want substantial information. So I will not skimp on the details. Which may mean some spoilers, so watch out.
Synopsis: When their vile stepfather’s intentions to marry them off to the highest bidder forces the Stiles sisters to run for their lives, the youngest of the three heiresses, Laura, finds Parson Caleb Tillman’s mission group and uses them as an escape...and perhaps much more.
Here I go again, eh? Taking of one of the industry’s most popular new releases and blasting it to bits. Y’all, even some of my friends, who’s bookish opinions I usually agree with wholeheartedly, thoroughly enjoyed this book...and I absolutely hated it.
Of course, I must preface this by saying I knew I would. You see, I read a few Connealy books back in the day (even then knowing she was one of the most popular Christian western romance authors out there) and just couldn’t get into them. Sure, the plots were interesting and kept my attention, but even twelve-year-old me knew something was lacking.
Just-as-naive (almost) seventeen-year-old me had the bright idea to pick up Connealy’s latest release, The Element of Love, and give her another try. Bethany House’s publicist basically convinced me that this book was worth the read and I thought, if nothing else, I could enjoy the story itself and that absolutely gorgeous cover.
(Y’all. That. Cover. I have no words.)
I mean, surely her 2022 novel would be leagues above her 2008-2010 releases, right? Surely her writing had gotten better within the last decade?
Before I start complaining, as I am wont to do, I will say this: people have enjoyed this book. You might enjoy this book (actually, I put money on it). It has an interesting premise, and it’s a short, fast-paced read, which is just about all most people want out of a story.
Keywords: most people. I, for one, am not most people, and I require a great deal more than a short, quick read and interesting concept.
I need strong development and good writing, the two main things this book lacked.
Since my pet peeves go beyond those two things, I’m gonna divide this review into subsections (no, I’m not changing my review structure again...just trying to contain my scrambled thoughts).
(This is what happens when I go to review a book the day after I finished it. *groans*)
The first of the Six Ps of a Novel, prose is one of my all-time favorites. I’m a sucker for lyrical, poetic prose...classical, philosophical prose...emotional prose that captures every element of the story and perfectly conveys it.
Or, well, anything well-written.
Unfortunately, Connealy’s prose of none of that. I hate to say it, but to me, there was more telling than showing. There was no emotion or deep connection to the characters’ perspectives (which made it so hard to tell who’s POV each scene was in, especially since we had so many POV characters). Really, the book read like a first draft—very threadbare in both the prose department and the…
Y’all. The concept was so interesting (if a little unrealistic), and it really had so much potential! BUT (always a but, y’know), it was so poorly executed and I just felt like plot had never really been plotted. And this is coming from a pantser (which means I don’t follow a specific plot structure or outline for my novels). It seemed like Connealy just made things up as she went along and threw stuff in whenever it popped in her head.
And, since we’re talking first drafts here, the plot was never polished or developed. You can wing your story and figure out your premise as you write it, but you have to finish it. You can’t just pass your pantsed story off as a polished novel; you have to fix inconsistencies, tie loose ends, foreshadowed things, omit anything that’s pointless. The list goes on. Unfortunately, Connealy didn’t do that.
On top of that, she added a lot of extra plot points and subplots that really took away from the main one. Considering how short this book was, I feel like the emphasis needed to be solely on Laura, her sisters, and finding husbands. All the drama with the miners (especially at the end) and the whole deal with the gold could’ve been (1) handled better or (2) omitted entirely.
Or we could’ve made the book longer...just sayin’.
It’s honestly hard to find a book with bad pacing; it’s kinda difficult to mess that up. The Element of Love was fast-paced and—like I said—short, and I think that pacing would have worked really well (especially considering it’s part of a series) IF the story had been developed better! We breezed through the beginning, skipped over character development, and jumped headfirst into a marriage without any foundation! Worse, the ending was terrible. I’m sorry, but it just was. All the subplots were wrapped up hurriedly, while the main plot points were left hanging. Of course, not everything could be resolved in this book, but there’s no denying that the ending could’ve been better.
For a 304-page book, we had a TON of characters. Laura and her sisters. Caleb and his friends. The miners and their wives. Zane and his men. Not to mention Margaret and Edgar. In short, there should’ve been half as many characters and twice as many pages.
Because the characters were positively skeletal. Laura was lacking characterization and development that she sorely needed—because she could’ve been an amazing, unique character, but instead she was just a smart blonde. Jilly and Michelle were more developed, and only from other characters’ perspectives rather than their own.
Speaking of the three sisters...it bothered me how much emphasis was put on their intelligence. Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking: “It’s the whole point of the story! They’re smarter than any woman—or man—of their time!” And that is an amazing and unique trait, but it was used just like beauty.
Everyone was captivated by their intelligence (which was real, but confined only to book learning rather than wisdom or common sense, which I personally value more), and their smarts were their only good quality, their definition. In the end, people didn’t like the Stiles sisters because of their kind hearts or insight or helpfulness or cheerful attitudes or Christlike qualities.
They liked them because they were smart.
And the last thing I wanted to do was like them just because they were smart. I wanted true depth of character and authentic faith in God and genuine compassion. Not mathematical minds. (Speaking of, though, I personally think Roseanna M. White’s Margot de Wilde was written better. Her intelligence stretched a little farther than a good education, and she actually had a convincing mathematical mind. Still didn’t like her much either, though, go figure.)
Caleb...whoo, boy. It’s one thing for me to not like the heroine or connect with her, but the hero? I’m supposed to adore the hero!
Not Caleb. He had so much potential—caring missionary pastor with a hidden past of shame—but his entire character was rushed through and discarded. All his struggles and internal conflicts and feelings and arc could’ve been defined and made him an amazing, relatable hero...instead, he was nothing but a—you guessed it—love interest. I don’t do love interests. I do heroes and heroines. Not main character and love interest. I need equality.
In the end, Zane was the best character. I absolutely adored him (strong, stubborn, tall, dark, and handsome; what’s not to love?), and the only reason I might read the next book is because of him. Out of everyone, his personality came through the strongest and he intrigued me the most.
(Also, y’all will probably hate me for this...but Edgar needed more development too. Like, c’mon, y’all. Even the villains are people. Unless they’re aliens, of course. Or animals. Or robots. Or...you get my point.)
This section is technically for themes and messages, but I’m gonna go overboard and cover a lot here.
First of all, there was no theme or message. There should have been one...about trusting in God or forgiveness or true love. But there wasn’t. *sobs* The faith elements were there...but they weren’t defined and they had no impact. And, of course, the sisters’ faith in God was limited to “knowing their Bible” (even the devil knows his Bible; that doesn’t mean a thing), and they never sought God, His will for their lives, or His precepts.
Rather, there was this twisted idea that marriage is an institution created for the sole purpose of serving oneself. If your husband is perfect, be married. If not, you need to leave. If your marriage gets you an inheritance, get married. If you don’t gain anything, forget it. Marriage was not treated as “an honourable estate...signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church: which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee, and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprized, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.” (Quoting from the Puritan vows, in case you’re wondering.)
Speaking of marriage, y’all. This was one of the worst romances I’ve ever read...mainly because there was no romance. There was no connection between Laura and Caleb, no development of their relationship at all, so their sudden marriage seemed really uncalled for, you know? Had the characters been developed and their romance actually there, I might not have minded the quick marriage so much.
(As it were, I would’ve rather had a marriage of convenience that occurred within a day of acquaintance.)
Also, this whole “marrying you would be a sin because you couldn’t have a mission” was. so. weird. (Is that a spoiler? I dunno. I feel like I’m past spoilers at this point.) Like, if God called Caleb to that, only He can call him out of that...and we’re all called to serve others and share the Gospel, whether we own a lumber company or not. Ya dig?
Just seemed like a dumb excuse when she’d could’ve went with “Dude, we don’t know each other from Adam’s house cat.”
And Caleb told her he was in prison, but apparently Laura thought that he’d been imprisoned for jaywalking, so when it came out that he’d been a swindler, she immediately gets ticked and vows to run off. LIKE C’MON HONEY HE TRIED TO TELL YOU AND MAYBE IF YOU HADN’T MARRIED HIM WITHIN A DAY YOU WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN SO SURPRISED TO FIND OUT HE WAS A CRIMINAL!
*clears throat* My apologies.
Before I get on another rant...the last big thing that bothered me was that everyone was a wife-beater. If you weren’t perfect, you beat women. And that was that. There was no development of the issue of abuse or really anything aside from just lots of gratuitous violence. What could’ve been an impactful theme was very poorly dealt with, I think.
But I’ve got to move one before I get mad again…
(Technically, this section is for faith elements...not preachiness. I just needed a P-word.)
Y’all know it ain’t a good book unless it’s got the Lord in it. Naturally, there were Christian elements, because Caleb was a parson...but, like I said, there weren’t any themes or messages, what could’ve been was never dwelt on, and everyone’s relationship with God was defined by how well they knew Scripture (not that they ever quoted any). There was really no substance to everyone’s faith, nor did I see any witnessing going on. *shrugs* I just needed more authenticity. More...everything, really.
long story short
To sum up all my whining, the story needed more development, stronger characters, and better quality writing. The characters and concept had great potential—and Zane was awesome—but I feel like the execution left a lot to be desired. There were no definite themes, arcs, or messages either, which was really disappointing for me, because I love gleaning from stories, feeling inspired by them, connecting with the characters, and learning something new!
(And I could kick myself for writing in nearly two thousand words what I just summed up in seventy-three words. Y’all, I need help.)
If you don’t mind hopping all over the place in terms of characters and plotlines, and you’re just looking for a fast and unique western read, then you’ll probably enjoy The Element of Love! But if you, like me, want a story to tug at your heartstrings and rope you in, I suggest picking up a Karen Witemeyer novel instead! (Hmm...should I start adding recommendations to my book reviews? Might not be such a bad idea!)
Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher, publicist, or author, including NetGalley. All opinions expressed are my own.
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about the author
Mary is the bestselling author of over 70 books and novellas has nearly a million books in print. Her most recent book series are The Lumber Baron’s Daughters, Brothers in Arms, High Sierra Sweethearts, Cimarron Legacy, Wild at Heart, Trouble in Texas, and Kincaid Brides.
Mary Connealy writes romantic comedies with cowboys and is celebrated for taking her readings on a fun, action-packed adventure. She is a two-time Carol Award winner, and a Rita, Christy and Inspirational Reader’s Choice finalist.
Mary lives on in eastern Nebraska with her very own romantic cowboy hero.