Set in Hope, Texas, God Spare the Girls subverts the biblical story, in which a man escapes while women perish.
The story of Lot, the famous one, is a story for men. In it, Lot is given a divine warning that his city, Sodom, and its neighbor, Gomorrah, will be destroyed for their inhabitants’ wickedness and he and his wife and two daughters must flee. Lot is warned not to look back when they do—but his wife and daughters are not. As they leave the city, Lot’s wife, who is not named in the Bible, takes one last look at her home. God transforms her into a pillar of salt. Lot does not look back.
Why wouldn’t God warn the women about the demise of their city? And why wouldn’t Lot warn his family of women about their potential fate? These questions run through God Spare the Girls, Kelsey McKinney’s debut novel about the two daughters of a megachurch pastor, Luke Nolan, whose family is rocked by scandal when Nolan has an affair with a member of the church. The novel, which takes place in the semi-fictional town of Hope, Texas, is a corrective to the story of Lot: The plot hasn’t changed much—the father, a man drenched in holiness, still betrays the women in his family—but the perspective has.
God Spare the Girls follows the two sisters, Caroline and Abigail, or Caro and Abbi, in the wake of their father’s betrayal. Abigail, the older, post-grad sister, is a beautiful, intelligent force of nature and their father’s clear favorite. Caroline, the main character, who is six years Abigail’s junior and headed to college at the end of the summer, often feels that she pales in comparison. Their age gap means that they’ve never quite connected. After their father heartbreakingly disappoints them with his nonchalance about his transgression, the two decamp to their grandmother’s ranch house, which she’d left to the girls when she died. There, free from family and church gossip, the sisters grow close as they discover the character of their father—a man who doesn’t even know how his wife, Ruthie, takes her coffee—and a series of family secrets, including the covered-up suicide of their grandmother.
At first glance, the book, with its lush descriptions and occasionally purple prose, appears a dramatic departure from McKinney’s prior work as a journalist. A co-owner of Defector, the media cooperative created by former workers of the cursed, hedge-fund-owned, sports-news-culture publication Deadspin, McKinney is perhaps best known as a talented feature writer and interviewer. For years, she wrote essays for her newsletter, Written Out, which focused on books written by women who had fallen out of history.
The aesthetic of God Spare the Girls is, in short, delightful. It’s Christian Girl Autumn—the social media sensation that captured the particular fashion (big scarves, tall boots, simple jeans) of well-off white women, a satirical response to Hot Girl Summer, the phenom popularized by fans of Megan Thee Stallion—meets televangelist and TV personality Joel Osteen, a surprisingly distinct Texas subculture. Caroline is both within this culture and outside it. For the duration of the novel, which is at its core a bildungsroman, college-bound Caro lives in a coming-of-age liminal space, waging an internal battle between the culture and beliefs she followed in her childhood and those that she’ll make for herself. It’s satisfying, if at times irritating, to watch Caro grow.
In addition to biblical and Shakespearean parallels, the novel is packed with skillful nods to other writers. The most obvious influence is John Steinbeck—just the names Abbi and Caro mirror the Aron and Cal from East of Eden, themselves references to Abel and Cain. One could also make a parallel to writer Anne Carson’s work about God. From her book Glass, Irony, and God: “God’s agent is questionable. God’s agent is unquestionable that His agency might be unquestionable”—like Carson’s agent of God, Luke Nolan is both questionable and unquestionable. Her poems on the nature of divinity are melancholic and feminist, similar to McKinney’s work.
The other Lot story that’s central to the novel’s plot takes place before the wreckage of Sodom, when angels arrive in the disguise of men to warn Lot about the pending destruction. Men from the city crowd Lot’s door, demanding to “know” the disguised angels. Lot begs the men not to harm the angels and offers his daughters up instead. McKinney cleverly places the story from Exodus in the epigraph: “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” In the Bible, as in the novel, men are saved and women are destroyed. If McKinney’s metaphors are occasionally obvious, I don’t mind.