A mesmerizing debut novel set in northern Texas about two sisters who discover a dark secret about their father, the head pastor of an evangelical megachurch, that upends their lives and community—a coming-of-age story of family, identity, and the delicate line between faith and deception.
Luke Nolan has led The Hope congregation for over a decade, while his wife and daughters patiently uphold what it means to live righteously. Made famous by a viral sermon on purity co-written with his eldest daughter, Abigail, Luke is the prototype of a modern preacher: tall, handsome, a spellbinding speaker. But his youngest daughter Caroline has started to notice the cracks in their comfortable life. She is certain that her perfect, pristine sister is about to marry the wrong man—and Caroline has slid into sin with a boy she’s known her entire life, wondering why God would care so much about her virginity anyway.
When it comes to light, six weeks before Abigail’s wedding, that Luke has been having an affair with another woman, the entire Nolan family falls into a tailspin. Caroline seizes the opportunity to be alone with her sister. The two girls flee to the ranch they inherited from their maternal grandmother, far removed from the embarrassing drama of their parents and the prying eyes of the community. But with the date of Abigail’s wedding fast approaching, the sisters will have to make a hard decision about which familial bonds are worth protecting.
An intimate coming-of-age story and a modern woman’s read, God Spare the Girls lays bare the rabid love of sisterhood and asks what we owe our communities, our families, and ourselves.
I approached this book with a little trepidation, not because I thought it would be bad, but because I knew it could potentially hit close to home. And it did. After I read the first quarter I took a break for a few days and then came back to it when I was ready. While this is very specific, with one kind of experience in one kind of church, I suspect it'll ring true for many people who have left a conservative Christian faith.
While the central conflict of the book is the discovery of an affair by the pastor of an evangelical megachurch, that is not the central story and this is wise. No one grapples with their faith in a vacuum, and when you do it seems like everything around you takes on some kind of new meaning. Here the central story is of our protagonist Caroline and her sister Abigail, who are shaken by their father's sin and retreat to the family ranch to get some space. These are not sisters with a close relationship. Abigail is the model child, who helps write her father's sermons, who writes worship songs, who has always been the one out front. Caroline is the secondary player, lacking her sister's dazzle or ambition, but when the news strikes she's already in the middle of her own struggle. Caroline has been sneaking out with a boy, not one she cares all that much about, either. She feels lost, not understanding why she's done what she's done, anxious to leave home for UT instead of Texas Christian as her family wanted. Abigail is only a few weeks away from her wedding to a bland but godly man. The sisters are in very different places but the time they spend isolated on the ranch brings them together.
The two sisters are so well drawn. I loved seeing how they came together and pulled apart, the different ways they reacted. Sometimes one sister would take the lead for her own set of reasons, and then the other. Even when they agree, they are not always coming at it from the same place, but the overlap helps them feel united and they start to understand each other in a way they never have before. There is no one way to grapple with a faith crisis or a family crisis, and when the two overlap it's even more complicated.
For me, Caroline's journey rang very true to my own. The way she feels at the beginning of the book was exactly how I felt, though I didn't have one very big event that brought everything to a head the way she did. Abigail also felt very real, though I suspect for people who didn't grow up in this kind of conservative religion she will feel more foreign and some of her actions may be hard to believe, but I think McKinney does a good job of showing you a way in through the more accessible Caroline's understanding of her.
While it wasn't the easiest read given the personal similarities, every detail felt just right. (Except maybe the "3rd biggest evangelical church in Texas," that is... REALLY big, bigger than how it's presented to us.)
“The Bible promised a version of womanhood that was all sweetness and goodness. But Caroline wanted wet, sloppy kisses. She wanted to make quick retorts and harness the power of her body like the women she saw on TV. She didn’t want a prime-time sitcom life. She wanted cable. She wanted a parental advisory warning. Or at least she thought she did.”
Man. This book just did something to me. It hurt my heart a little bit.
I think it’s because I have so much in common with Kelsey McKinney - I also grew up in the Texas evangelical culture.
I also left. And learned and grew and evolved. My heart kept loving the Lord but my eyes were opened.
I struggled (struggle??) with so many of the things Caroline and Abigail did in this book.
The Blue Bell and Whataburger descriptions (yeah, I know what an orange and white striped bag means🤣) and the descriptions of the community in the church and the Texas country with its’ bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush…well those passages made this former Texan terribly homesick.
Part of me feels like Kelsey could have done even more to question the toxic, harmful parts of the church the girls grew up in. But that’s just me being selfish. The book is perfect as is.
It’s a quiet but eviscerating contemplation on grief and betrayal and anger and shame. It’s a beautiful portrait of the strength of sisterhood. It’s a complicated query of faith and megachurches. It’s the idea that you can love something but also despise and resent it deeply.
This is one that will stick with me for a long time. I’m sure of that.
I really enjoyed this book up until the very end when it just...ended. It didn't feel like the story concluded at all, instead the author just left all of her characters hanging. I can understand not wanting to end your book with everything fully resolved but the author just left it wide open, it honestly feels like she just got tired of writing and...stopped. Also, this is a minor critique but I don't think the author took enough time to really understand the Southern Baptist/Evangelical world she was trying to write about. The "sermons" are weird and unlike anything I've ever heard and she paints Southern Baptist as believing things that they just don't (at least not any Southern Baptists I know...and I'm married to a Southern Baptist pastor lol). But I found this to be a minor detail that didn't affect the overall story. I just wished she had done a little more to make her story feel complete.
I was in the right mood for a coming-of-age story like this debut. As the back cover blurb states, it is an emotional journey into family, identity, and the delicate line between faith and deception. While it may not resonate with every reader, it struck close to home for me as it was very reminiscent of my own childhood (minus the dark secrets! lol).
Two sisters, Abigail and Caroline, are the daughters of megachurch leader, Luke Nolan, who has led his Texas congregation for over a decade. His wife and daughters patiently uphold what it means to live righteously, with their lives being made an example to the church. Luke Nolan is the prototype Joel Osteen-type megachurch minister - tall, handsome, and a spellbinding speaker. His claim to fame is a now-viral sermon on purity, which incidentally was co-written with Abigail, the oldest daughter, who is engaged to be married to a young, "perfect," fellow church member. Youngest daughter, Caroline, however has started to notice the cracks in their perfect life. She is certain that her sister is about to marry the wrong man, and she herself has been "sliding into sin" with a boy she only marginally cares about - mainly because it's forbidden. The sisters are shocked though when right before Abigail's wedding, it comes to light that their father has been having an affair. Their lives immediately fall into a tailspin, and the sisters flee to a ranch they inherited from their grandmother, in order to remove themselves from the embarrassing drama of their parents and the prying eyes of the community. But with the date of Abigail's wedding fast approaching, and their parents pressuring them to come home, the sisters have to make a hard decision about which familial bonds are worth protecting.
If there was one thing that I felt with every ounce of my being was how the sisters felt about their lives being on display and scrutinized by every church member and community do-gooder. That was my life growing up as a minister's daughter as well, and I hated it. I immediately connected with Caroline's character, as I behaved in the same manner she did - question everything, break the rules just to see what the hype was all about, and not feel badly for not living up to others' expectations. Abigail seemed to be all the things Caroline could not be, and I loved Caroline for that. I thought their relationship was an interesting contrast, and their journey of finding a path together to move forward and each seek their own happiness was moving.
There were times when the sisters were at the ranch that the pace moved a bit slowly for me, but overall, the writing style was phenomenal and there were even a couple of twists that I wasn't expecting. I'm still unsure as to whether I was completely satisfied with the ending, but that is minor. I think what I truly enjoyed the most is that even though I follow a different path now when it comes to my views on God and religion, I still find positives in my upbringing and the foundations I had to build upon, and I thought McKinney nailed the balance of being appropriately critical but not overly disdainful of the subject.
Overall, an impressive debut that has stuck with me even a couple of weeks after finishing it (which is rare!). I look forward to reading more McKinney books in the future. 4 stars!
Where was the editor for this book? Slow---not enough character development...too much describing where their hands were placed on the table or how their facial expressions looked. Nothing really happened...what was the point? That men get away with just about everything with no recourse and women just have to accept it? Growing up in this kind of church, many things rang true but it was not well developed.
After reading all the glowing reviews, I will probably come across as the Grinch for giving only 2 stars. Sorry Kelsey. I kept questioning the time frame in which it was written. Surely these kinds of churches do not exist in the 21st century but wait, people are texting and have mobile phones. How can this be? Was this meant to be a YA novel? A modern woman’s read? I think not. Setting my disbelief in a backwards misogynistic 1950s religion apparently thriving in 2020, I still found it difficult to stick with the book. I re-read some of the reviews thinking the book must get better. For me, it did not. One of the teen-aged characters, Taylor, summed it up, “ It doesn’t seem like that big a deal.” I found it predictable. Of course the condom under the bed signaled Luke was having an affair. That’s not exactly an untold story to start with. Several subjects were opened then never revisited. Similes were overused and the Texas-isms were clumsy. I live in TX, BTW. I think only in Catholicism is suicide considered a sin and why have it in the book with no further exploration? I also have sisters and the relationship between Caro and Abby did not ring true to me. I found the fixation on what people, including the men, wore, was boring. Another reviewer mentioned the sloppy editing especially regarding pronouns. She told her they were having it. Huh? This definitely slowed my reading and I was in a hurry to finish the book.
Two sisters whose father is a prominent preacher in Nothern Texas find themselves questioning their religious beliefs given that their father is a righteous hypocrite. I enjoyed this, and you can tell the author was speaking of a place of perhaps personal experience regarding the forbidden sexuality of the church. I fret that this will fade into forgettable over time, but I enjoyed it while it lasted. Will look for more books by this author, and in the meantime I am loving her podcast- Normal Gossip.
Journalist Kelsey McKinney makes her debut as a novelist with God Save the Girls, and I have a hunch we’ll be seeing a lot more of her work. Lucky me, I read it free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and William Morrow for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Caroline and Abigail are the daughters of the charismatic head pastor at a megachurch in Hope, Texas. This opening paragraph had me at hello:
"For that whole brutal year, Caroline Nolan had begged God to make her life interesting. He sent a plague instead: grasshoppers emerged from the earth in late June, crawling across the dry grass, multiplying too quickly, staying long past their welcome. Now they carpeted the land she’d inherited with her sister, vibrated in the sun like a mirage. As Caroline drove the ranch’s half-mile driveway, she rolled over hundreds of them. She threw the car in park, stepped out into the yellowed grass beside the gravel drive, and crushed their leggy, squirming bodies beneath her sensible heels."
Teenagers are people that are exploring their own identities, and there’s often some rebellion mixed into those years, but for Caroline and Abigail, there’s not a speck of wiggle room. They are constantly reminded that everything they do reflects upon their father. Forget profanity, street drugs, shoplifting, booze. These girls have even the most minute aspect of their appearances proscribed. Is that V-neck deep enough to show even a smidge of cleavage? Cover it up, or go change. How much leg? Why aren’t you wearing makeup? Not just your smile, but what kind of smile? How you sit. How you stand. And if these confines were not enough to drive any teen bonkers, they live in a fishbowl that every adult seems to own a key to. People come in and out of the family home all day and all evening, so showing up to watch television in your robe and fuzzy slippers in the family room is a risky prospect, too.
I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t have. I really couldn’t.
But these are girls raised to believe that the Almighty is always watching, and always knows your heart, and so they do their best to shed petty resentments, whereas others must be buried deep. Buried, that is, until a shocking revelation is made about their father’s extracurricular activities.
The story is primarily told through Caroline’s point of view; Abby is the most important secondary character, and she’s interesting, but we see her through Caroline’s lens. I admire the way that McKinney develops both of them, but more than anything, I admire her restraint. In recent years, fundamentalist and evangelical Christian preachers have gone from being rather shocking, daring novelists’ subjects to low-hanging fruit. As I read, I waited for the rest of it. Which girl was Daddy molesting? What else has he done? Has he embezzled? Does he have a male lover on the side somewhere--or Lordy, a boy? But McKinney doesn’t go to any of those places. She keeps the story streamlined, and in doing so not only stands out from the crowd, but is able to go deeper into Caroline’s character.
At the end, when Abigail prepares to marry the dull, dependable boy her parents like, the scene is downright menacing; their mother, Ruthie, is helping her into her dress, and she “wielded a hook like a sword,” and as everyone takes their positions, the walkie-talkies “hiss.”
There’s a good deal more I could tell you, but none of it would be as satisfying for you as reading this book yourself. Your decision boils down to text versus audio, and I advocate for the audio, because Catherine Taber is a badass reader, lending a certain breathless quality to key parts of the narrative. But if you’re visually oriented, you can’t go wrong with the printed word here, either.
I received this book through a Goodreads Giveaway. Its the story of two sisters with differing outlooks forging a bond through a time of family trauma. This is extremely well written and the subject is timely. The trauma is one we hear if too often these days. This book is for everyone.
I recently listened to 𝐆𝐎𝐃 𝐒𝐏𝐀𝐑𝐄 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐆𝐈𝐑𝐋𝐒 by Kelsey McKinney and thoroughly enjoyed her debut. While listening, I came to realize that I seem to be drawn to this sort of sub-genre: coming-of-age in a deeply religious, but flawed family. This one is told by 18-year old Caroline over a summer she and her older sister spend alone on their family ranch. They flee there to put distance between themselves and their famous pastor father who has just been outed for having an affair. While at the ranch, the sisters try to hold onto their faith, but question everything else, bringing them closer and closer together. It was a solid ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ read for me.
What a lovely, intimate book. God Spare the Girls is a fascinating window into Evangelical Texan life, and one can feel the author's complicated relationship with her own upbringing on every page. McKinney's character work really shines, and her prose rings true because it is obvious that she has been in this place, known these people, seen these conflicts play out. She's able to be critical while simultaneously holding obvious love in her heart not just for Texas, but for the people who populate it, flaws and all. She works with a deft hand to bring her characters to life, letting the sadness and rage held under the mannered exteriors come through in actions, gestures, and the way characters phrase what they have to say.
The book is gripping, though not because of a relentless plot. In truth, not that much *happens*, particularly in the book's second act, which stretches out like the long, hot, Texas summer days it describes before snapping back to a more rapid pace after one particularly ill-fated trip to a grocery store. Nonetheless, because this place feels so real and whole, the stresses and tensions the novel's central family is experiencing transfer easily to the reader. You want to know how it will all be resolved, and if the titular girls will be okay, and it very much keeps you turning the pages.
McKinney doesn't have easy answers to those questions, but she draws the novel nonetheless to an ending that feels earned and satisfying, even if it's not the one the reader (or some of the characters) may have hoped for. Her interrogation of Christianity's inherent misogyny is unsparing, particularly in regard to a select few well-known bible stories, and while different characters make different choices in regard to their faith, none are incomprehensible or feel unearned. Touching, gripping, and frustrating in equal measure, God Spare the Girls is an excellent read an I recommend it with enthusiasm.
God Spare the Girls is the story of two sisters who, after learning of their father’s infidelity, begin to question the foundation of all they were raised to believe and their perception of the father they love, who is also the pastor of their church.
There really isn’t anything shocking in this story. It felt very true to life, showcasing people as they are, both as facades and as the reality underneath that shiny surface. It hurt my heart so many times because of this. I think the author did a fantastic job illustrating a powerful message while never telling the reader how they should think or feel.
I particularly liked that the narrative continuously followed a very realistic path, never wrapping things up in fancy packaging or utilizing unnecessary dramatics.
I felt curious about the author’s background as I read this. This is not Christian fiction, but McKinney did seem to have a firm grasp on theology, church politics, and Christian family life. While this can all come from research, so much of it felt like it was born from a more personal experience. Her ability to capture this tone so eloquently was impressive.
God Spare the Girls is a solid, immersive debut and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s quiet literature that won’t speak to everyone in the same way, but even in its whispers, it has something very important to say.
I am immensely grateful to William Morrow/Custom House for my review copy through NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Editing to add: I just read the author’s acknowledgments and “About the Author” blurb. They answered my questions about her background. 🙂
Now, I don’t think I can write a formal book review because my experience with this book was personal. Because, in many ways, I lived Caroline’s story. So witnessing it a decade later through the lens of someone who’s taken time to deconstruct, challenge, heal, and explore was really freaking affirming.
This book may not hit the same for everyone. But to those of you who may need it, here are some of the most profound quotes I underlined:
- “When you are a woman, there is always a man between you and God.”
- “This guilt trip of cherry-picked verses might have worked on her before all of this… but she knew the Bible too. She also knew how easily it could be used to justify any action.”
- “Did she realize that she wasn’t defending her own mission, but her husband’s ability to do whatever he wanted as long as he claimed it was holy?”
- “Or maybe her belief had blinded her to all of the things that should have been making her unhappy all along.”
- “How apt that he’d interpret being held accountable for his actions as cruelty.”
- “Caroline swallowed down her tears. God had loved the world so much that he gave his only son to save it. But they were only daughters.”
5 stars ⭐️ this was one of the most cathartic reading experiences I have had in a long time.
I Just can't rate this book any higher. It was just Blah for me. I appreciate this book will get many 4 and 5 star ratings. Christian, young adult fiction is just not a genre I appreciate, so I realize I am not the right audience for it. I often found myself getting irritated by the characters, their choices and lack of accountability. Consequently, the book became tedious to read that I had to skim past these parts. I didn't look forward to getting back to reading the book. The ending was also so unsatisfying. I am sad to say I was relieved when it was over.
This debut novel about two sisters (Abigail and Caroline) who find out their famous evangelical pastor father has some secrets reminded me of The Book of Essie (but, a bit quieter) and The Dearly Beloved. Set in a small town in Northern Texas, this is a story about living for the sake of appearances vs. living authentically. It's a story of sisters and what happens when two sisters finally get to know each other for real. And, what happens to their faith with it's rocked by the exposure of their father's secrets...and the crumbling of the "perfect pastor's family" facade. A great pick for book clubs!
Whoa! This is a powerful debut. This was an up til 2am because I must finish this story kindof book. God Spare The Girls is a tender coming of age about Caroline Nolan, the daughter of a mega-church pastor whose extramarital affair comes to light, and how not only his affair but his famous purity-culture sermons have affected his daughters lives. This book is about hypocrisy in the church. It's about toxic purity culture. It's about patriarchy. It's about the difference between actually being sorry, and being sorry you got caught. But mostly, it's about a relationship between sisters during trying times. Caroline's father, Pastor Luke Nolan, gave me some serious Mark Driscoll vibes *insert song: I'm picking up really sketch vibes* and I hated every scene he was in. But I absolutely loved the relationship between Caroline and her sister Abigail, and how they bonded, fought, made mistakes, and ultimately fell back on each other during a challenging time in their life. This story hit me hard and then left me wanting more, asking "But, what now?" Caroline was a strong young female lead and I was rooting for her. She didn't always say or do the right thing, but who does? I was so proud of her strength and her honesty. Abigail deserved more than where her story took her, and I wanted to know if she veered off her current path in the future at all. But the choices these sisters made never once surprised me. This book is beautifully written, the characters are strongly developed, and the story packs a punch while also being just a slice of life. If you have deconstructed or pulled away from mainstream evangelicalism, and are critical of oft-hypocritical church leadership, this is a good read. If you grew up in the purity culture movement or a particularly strict church environment, this one might sting a little, but it's so so good. I will read all the things McKinney writes in the future.
Wow. I read this book in 24 hours. What a debut novel! Set in Texas, this story focuses on sisters Abigail and Caroline Nolan. Their father, Luke Nolan, helped to usher in the “purity movement” in the evangelical world and is the pastor of one of the largest evangelical churches in America.
We enter the story a decade after he has achieved fame and grown his church to two locations and six services a week. He has also just been discovered to have been having an affair. While this is the backdrop of the story, it’s not really about Luke Nolan and his never-ending commitment to image and perception-it’s about the role the women in his life play to this. His two daughters are seeing things in a whole new light including their mother and their ongoing role to their dad and the church.
Having grown up in the Evangelical world during the height of the purity movement and working at a mega-church during a sex scandal that broke open all the themes of women in leadership in the church, image repair & maintenance and gender roles - this book hit close to home.
The writing is phenomenal. I can’t wait for the author’s next book.
The writing was good and the character development was good. The plot was good and it held together well enough - I finished it. My problem was with the evangelical Christian themes. There are reasons I no longer participate in a community based on group-think and an holier-than-thou facade. I was unsettled by the relationship between the two sisters. They were becoming friends and bonding when the ambition of the older sister eclipsed their progress and set the stage for her own agenda. Run Caroline, run.
I received this book through a Goodreads Giveaway. When I began to read this book, I found myself reading very slowly, not wanting to miss a word or a nuance. This story is so relevant right now. Young girls, raised in the Evangelical tradition, with the emphasis in chastity until marriage, trying to navigate life and the reality if who matters, and who doesnt, in the church community. I loved its heart and its hope.
I liked the premise of this novel, and the relationship between the sisters was interesting. However, if you like resolution, you will not enjoy the ending of this book. Nothing is even remotely resolved, and I walked away from the story frustrated.
A truly stunning debut. This is exactly the writing that I love - clear and concise writing that so easily absorbs the reader, plopping them right into the setting, with the characters, with very little work required from said reader. Writing that isn’t outlandish or ostentatious, but still contains passages so beautiful you reread them 3 or 4 times just to sit with them a bit longer. This novel is not a thriller by any means, but it reads like one in that you cannot stop turning the page.
4.5. This book was quiet but had a lot of layers. This was kinda up my alley as it was about an evangelical family in Texas that is dealing with a pastor father of a mega church who had an affair. Oh the drama! I read one review that said “nothing happened” in this book. So much happened! It was just - quiet.
This book follows the daughters of a megachurch pastor in Texas after a scandal threatens their father’s position and leads them to question their own beliefs and futures.
I expected this book to provide more in-depth commentary on the problematic aspects of many evangelical churches, but found it to be a bit too surface-level. While it addresses purity culture, the patriarchy, and the idolization of pastors, it was done so subtly that I didn’t take much from it as a reader.
I also felt that the story lacked a strong plot, had little character development, and failed to resolve itself.
That being said, my mom read this first and LOVED it, so maybe a good book to get your mom?🤷🏼♀️
To preface, I did receive this book in a goodreads giveaway!
This book falls somewhere between “slice of life” and “coming of age”, two genres that I really enjoy. The characters are all very realistic along with the family dynamics. There isn’t a clear resolution during the ending, but for once I’m okay with it. I feel like if everything was wrapped up neatly at the end it would feel wrong, considering the rest of the novel.
My favorite part of this book was by far the scenery and settings. There are some really beautiful descriptions of the setting, especially those involving the ranch. Worth the read for that alone!
Overall, this book made me sad and frustrated. I knew going in that I would likely disagree with some of the perspectives presented, but I hoped that there would be some redeeming message too. Sadly, I found a story of two sisters trying to process a tragedy that affected their family, their church and their faith, failing to actually connect with God through it all. And like me, neither of them seem satisfied with how the story ends.
The picture of the shallow and hypocritical church congregation is a warning of the danger that comes from following the personality of a charismatic pastor and his flashy messages rather than letting God's Word guide the congregation. I think that message is important and relevant. The frustrating part was that the protagonist and seemingly other characters didn't seem to make any real change when they realized this error. The author continued to pull Bible passages into the story to demonstrate the dangers and injustice of patriarchy but failed to accurately interpret the scripture being referenced. The truth was missed, and I fear that readers who don't read the Bible will take away from this story massive misunderstandings of who God is and who we are as his people. I can't recommend this book because I worry it does more harm than good.
4.25* At first glance it may seem like this is a simple story about a strict father, his wife, and his two daughters, but it is so much more than that. Religion, honesty, family, fidelity, sister envy are just a few of the myriad issues taking place within the small town of Hope, Texas for the Nolan family. This story moved easily, yet for being so simple, it can make one think about their own beliefs about religion, honesty, family, siblings. Maybe this novel isn't really so simple after all... I thoroughly enjoyed this debut.