1. Put aside your concepts of what love is, between whom it should be shared, and what a partnership, marriage, loving relationship or family should look like.
2. Definitely forget about your standard expectations of hero archetypes. Michael, the hero, is an electrician. He’s muscular. He’s damn fine to look at. He’s a single father.
So far so good, right?
He’s a widower.
Not uncommon, right?
His former spouse was a man named Alex. Alex was killed in a car accident that left their daughter scarred and his family broken.
3. Forget your automatic rejection of books that switch first-person point of view, or are from first person point of view. Also, prepare to notice and then stop noticing that the book is in the present tense. The first-person and the tense combine to lend an immediacy to the prose that, quite simply, work for both the emotional impact and the narrative progression.
Plus, as a device it underscores the urgency and immediacy of the characters’ grief, and their risks, and their bravery. The tension of their pain and the potential of their fragile happiness is more urgent in the present tense, and after I saw it, I didn’t see it anymore. The way in which the book is written almost seems like each chapter is an episode of a season of a drama, or a telenovela. It’s a visual book, and Knight’s mastery of the individual and larger story arcs in each chapter and in the whole of the book add to the multi-sensual experience of reading it.
4. Stop relying on labels. Hetero. Bi. Gay. Father. Mother. Family.
Please recognize that the foundation of the romance genre absolutely does include books like this one, and that the attraction and love between two people regardless of sex and gender is the bedrock of the romance industry. The connection is the story, not the people at either end of it. The sooner we as readers include books that step outside the traditional lines, the more outstanding narratives we will have to read.
As a corollary, I want to point out that it is a crying, screaming, full-on-raging-tantrum shame that this book is ineligible for a RITA. Not because of the content or the story, but because of the production requirements facing digital publishers. This book may not receive the recognition within our genre that it deserves because of poorly-defined and applied labels, and that problem needs fixing, pronto.
5. Do not skip the longer paragraphs. No seriously. Don’t skip like I do. I tend to read for dialogue and will find myself passing over long blocks of descriptive text, just like my eyes start scanning long paragraphs online.
Don’t do that. I made the mistake in the first few pages and clicked my sorry ass backwards through the file because I had missed some truly eloquent writing. For example:
When you work with writers for a living like I do, life’s little details are an herb garden, and you pluck a few ripe things here and there to give away…..
Then, without meaning to, I leave the room. Not physically, of course, but my mind flutters away. I’m eight feet high, pasted against the ceiling, floating there. Bobbing above them all, listening in. I’m watching her, down there; that girl at her desk with the Montblanc pen and the ruined face, lost in a company town, in her remote corner of an oversized studio lot.
I can’t say enough about Knight’s writing. The prose is lyrical, each word deliberately wrought, like fine stitchwork on an enormous piece of embroidery. Every stitch is exquisite.
Further, do not skip the book because it is big. And it is. For an ebook, it’s bloody huge. But fear not. It flies.
With that list in place, before I forget: plot summary ahoy!
Rebecca O’Neill is a former actress who was attacked by a crazed fan, stabbed and slashed and left for dead. A few years later, she is a shell of her former self, scarred and damaged, afflicted with asthma and a tendency toward panic disorders. Instead of an actress, she’s a producer, working behind the scenes, hiding behind her hair, living in the shadow of the sets that constituted her former life.
When the lights go out in her office, she meets Michael Warner and his daughter, Andrea. Michael, an electrician, seems as lost and sad as Rebecca does, but because they meet in the dark, Rebecca feels secure enough to act a tiny bit on the instant and powerful attraction between herself and Michael. When she volunteers to take Andrea to get something to eat while he works on the power, she learns that Andrea is scarred like she is, and that Andrea’s father, Alex, died. Michael, Andrea says, is her step father. Michael, it would seem, is gay.
Yet Michael is drawn to Rebecca, as is Andrea, and the three of them form fast and deep connections across lines that aren’t normally crossed in a romance. Not only is Michael conflicted about getting over the memory of his first love, but he’s conflicted about being attracted to a woman, about bringing her into his life, about whether he’s gay, or bi, or straight, or just broken.
Rebecca is cautious, and tries to break out of her assumptions and predefined concepts of gayness and straightness – which are pretty clear-cut in Hollywood culture, it seems – and learns to trust Michael, trust herself, and try risking herself and her emotional happiness, trading her stagnant inert life for the excitement and potentially painful hurt of being with Michael.
And then there’s Andrea, who has withdrawn after surviving the accident that killed her father but finds herself connecting easily to Rebecca. She no longer calls Michael “Daddy,” but breaks out of her own shell in a hurry when she sees Rebecca. Her attempt to tell Michael about meeting Rebecca is revealing in its awkward pain:
Andrea stops then, wrapping her small, pale arms around herself in a bear hug. “Her scars still hurt sometimes, too. That’s what she said.”
I fight the urge to reach for her, to try and hold her. Like some hostage negotiator, I’m forced to play observer in my own family, as she edges nearer by the moment. “Like mine does.”
Andrea, Michael, and Rebecca’s stories become intertwined as they learn from and help to heal one another. But the speed with which Michael and Rebecca fall for one another seemed incredibly fast, almost too fast, as if their emotions were confirmed aloud so the plot could move forward, not because their emotions were the plot at that point. Both characters have to fall in love again as part of their healing, but while Michael resisted loving Rebecca, he also admitted his attraction to himself almost immediately, moving again on the same instinct that had led him to Alex. Rebecca’s affections, though mentioned, are not as explored in nuance as Michael’s and for that reason her comments about her own emotions seem to be more replies to his than statements of her own volition. He’s taking steps. She’s still being blown around by whatever force is closest to her.
In the end, it seemed that Michael had fully realized that he had to move on, take risks, and step off the path of grief and self-recrimination. He took deliberate steps in a new direction, and the reader saw the progress, and the effects of his actions.
But for Rebecca, on the other hand, the reader didn’t get to witness as much, and I was left wishing I’d seen more of her own emergence from her former life into a new one. She realizes that she’s too easily pushed by others, and has been living a fraction of her life inside the security of her routine and her lack of connection with people, but the actions she takes to counter her routine aren’t entirely seen. She mentions that she’s going to take a step in a different direction, one that might change her life, but the outcome of that action is never mentioned.
It seemed unfair to me that while I knew so many aspects of Michael’s future, I didn’t know all the elements of Rebecca’s, as much as I was rooting for them both. With the degree of pain they were both in at the start, I wanted more assurance of both characters’ healing.
That said, both characters transform, grow up, and move out of a shell of protective grief into the raw and scary challenge of taking risks and caring about another person again. And the risk of the characters lives echoes the risk of the book itself. The ending scenes were so powerful and touching, I cried.
Using that list as a guideline, I challenge you to read this book. This book, and its plot, are incredibly powerful, and incredibly brave. To base a major conflict on questioning the sexuality of the hero, and to emphasize love and emotional commitment over gender and sexual politics, is a big, powerful, brave, and onerous task to undertake in a romance novel. I know if I described this to some friends who like romance, the minute I got to the hero’s gay relationship, they’d balk. Knight doesn’t pay lip service to the idea of going from a committed gay relationship to a heterosexual one, either. The fact that Michael has found himself attracted to a woman is noticed by all of his friends, and his family, and Alex’s family. And Rebecca isn’t always sure what to make of Michael’s past relationship either, or how to go about talking to him or anyone else about it.
But like most people who face life-or-death situations, the only things that truly matter are not what people think, or what people say. It’s the people who love you and the people you love who matter. Love is real, it is painful, it is powerful, and it is brave, much like this book.