Between Saints and Sinners shines in many ways; the skillful handling of abuse and PTSD, the inclusion of a very sticky subject in religion and theology, difficult and absentee families, and a complicated relationship. This book could have gone horribly wrong but Sexton is a great writer and kept the subjects complicated yet not overwhelming. None of the characters are perfect or evil but show various shades of grey. They have intolerance yet also an ability to learn and change. Although not wholly successful for me, I think the story is an excellent example of complex issues and characters that never verge into extremes yet remain fascinating.
The plot begins with bartender Levi Binder avoiding his Mormon family to go surfing. Levi’s life consists of surfing, bartending, random hookups and the occasional guilt ridden phone call from his very religious family. So when he meets massage therapist Jaime, Levi’s predictable actions are to come on too strong and try to seduce Jaime. Unfortunately for Levi, Jaime was abused as a small child and has severe PTSD from his experience. Slowly Levi comes to understand Jaime’s past but more importantly, falls in love with the person Jaime is. Together they heal each other and find happiness.
First of all the characters of Levi and Jaime are wonderful. Both are scared and hurt in various ways but find what they need in each other. Never one for relationships and preferring anonymous sex, Levi turns into a man that puts Jaime’s needs first and doesn’t obsess about sex. Jaime in turn learns to control his fear and not let the things that scare him control him. Both men are compelling and interesting on their own but it’s their interaction together, the gentle love and obvious affection that really charms. There’s a scene with Levi’s family when Jaime is slightly anxious about the kind of Sprite Levi is buying and it shows not only how well they know each other but how well Levi handles Jaime’s neurosis. It’s lovely and romantic and shows the real connection between the two men.
The story unfortunately does stumble in a few areas. The first is religion. On the one hand the writing does a really masterful job in presenting the reality of the Mormon Church. It’s not all Big Love so it’s nice to see a much more intelligent example of a loving and caring family. The politics and religion presented are pretty close to the religion and its beliefs as well as the rhetoric also shown. Unfortunately, there is a lot of it in the book. This is important since Levi’s family is a major secondary character but at the same there is a lot of God, religion, and theology in this story. So much that some readers may be turned off by it. I walked the line where sometimes I really appreciated the inclusion and other times I got sick of reading about it. I think the final scene with Levi’s father is very nice and important yet way too much religion by then. But each reader will vary on how much religion and discussion they want in their romance.
On the flip side though the story simply shines with it’s portrayal of Jaime’s abuse and aftermath. Jaime is fragile yet incredibly brave and strong. Jaime initially lets his fear and abuse control his life but meeting Levi changes things. While both Levi and Jaime are great characters on their own with Levi’s need to rebel and Jaime’s desperate need for safety, this is a case where the sum of the men are greater than their parts. Together the couple is wonderful, charming, romantic, and lovely while apart they feel tragic. There’s no great question of the two getting together although Jaime remains a little too naïve and clueless, drawing out the happy ending.
Overall this is an excellent story with heart warming characters that will definitely appeal to readers. The religion aspect may be a sticking point for some as tastes vary. I find it’s not wholly successful yet it does offer a very realistic and honest portrayal of the religion. However the real stars are the wonderfully complicated protagonists. You can’t help but adore them and root for their much deserved happy ending.