By Susan Pearce
VUP, NZ$30 | Reviewed by Jennifer Van Beyen

THE COVER of Acts of Love – a peach-coloured blur of an entwined couple walking into golden light – could easily lead some readers to believe that this is a puffy romance story. Do not be misled: Acts of Love, although exploring love in many forms, is hardly a clichéd love story.

Beginning in contemporary New Zealand, detouring to America in the early 1960s then returning to Wellington 2004, the book focusses on safely married couple Rita and Bill. Both, in their youth, were involved in People Under God’s Command, or the ‘Movement’, a religious cult helmed by the charismatic Leland Swann. In its heyday in the United States, People Under God’s Command took over an estate which housed many young people, all working for the Movement’s success. This is the setting for Part II of Acts of Love, where Rita and Bill meet; Bill a confidante of Leland’s and Rita a naïve young woman, certain that her destiny is to marry Leland.

Back to 2004 – and the beginning of the book. Rita and Bill have now been married several decades, happily, when Leland announces he will be coming to visit them, following his wife’s death. Rita’s ensuing jumble of emotions, which come to the fore on discovering this, colours the rest of the book, as she comes to terms with their history and implications on her relationship with Bill. Added to the mix of a now jaded Leland in the house is Rita and Bill’s daughter Stella, fresh from a relationship break-up and desperate to have a baby.

Susan Pearce’s characters and their relationships are perfectly executed, in particular the dynamic between Rita and her mother, and the difficult love that they struggle to share. Although the religious rhetoric used by Leland’s cult is of the “listen and God will tell you His will” variety, with adherents being pushed to attain perfect purity and all the rest, the characters are unfailingly human. In a memorable scene where Rita’s parents visit her at the religious ‘centre’, Rita attempts yet again to remain unruffled and serene to her parents, and apologises yet again for not being a perfect and even-tempered daughter. Her mother’s only response is ‘I won’t deny you’ve always been difficult’, aggravating Rita further by commenting “‘My, I don’t think this “Perfect Truth” is going well for you if you can’t accept a little honest criticism.’” As is often the case in life, grand expectations are deflated by reality: “In Movement stories, an honest and straightforward apology always opened a chink in the soul of the sinned against; that person was inescapably moved, no longer able to summon up bitterness, and converted to People Under God’s Command shortly after. That her parents were not following this rule seemed an incomprehensible act of malice.”

I was slightly disappointed (no doubt from not noticing the page numbers) that the section of the book focussing on People Under God’s Command in the 1960s ended so soon, and we were back to 2004. The goings-on of a religious cult are always intriguing, and the fictionalised account was extremely compelling. However the rest of Acts of Love stood up well around it, with plenty of family drama that never descended into indulgent melodrama – possibly a tempting option towards the end of the book. Even the literal acts of love that take place throughout the book steer well clear of Mills & Boon territory.

Don’t be too misled by the cover – which seemed more appropriate once I’d finished the book. Acts of Love is a very good read, and Susan Pearce does an excellent job of detailing a family’s functions and dysfunctions against the backdrop of a history of religious indoctrination.