Starting From Scratch is a novella I struggled with so much, I procrastinated during this review and tried to go clean something rather than write it. It's difficult but it's brave, it's emotionally nuanced and emotionally frustrating, and because of all that, it's really, really freaking hard to assign a grade.
This novella is not perfect, and I didn't love it as much as Hero's Homecoming, but, strange as this sounds, I have a lot of respect for it. This story didn't cushion the impact of the past and the present for the characters or for the reader.
Sully Jax has returned home after being injured in an IED attack, and has been left with partial amnesia: he remembers everything and everyone except his wife, Lucy. The story opens as Lucy is attempting to move on with her life in the small town where they lived (which is named “Bitterthorn” because obvious town name is obvious), working at a bakery and making monster loads of cookies for the holiday season. Slowly the reader learns how deep Lucy's pain goes, and how difficult her grief is when, anytime she sees Sully, she knows that she still loves him, even though he doesn't remember her – and worse, that sometimes seeing her had agitated him to the point that he threw things at her to make her go away. She accepted his request for a divorce while he was still in the hospital, and has tried to accept her life as it is at the present. When Sully comes home for the holidays, it's much more difficult for Lucy to pretend like she's ok, and that his presence doesn't hurt her terribly.
The conflict is both external and internal: Sully can't remember Lucy, and he does feel panic and anger when he sees her. He's not in control of his brain entirely, and he's upset about it – but mostly because of how it affects him. It takes him awhile to realize that by divorcing Lucy, he cut her off from any benefits that might have helped her (though it's not like the US military is known for their generous and high-quality mental health care), and he's done more harm. Plus, there's the internal conflict of how Lucy feels about Sully, how angry she is at him and why, and what happened prior to his last deployment that he can't remember, but she can. There's a lot of tangled emo-mess up in here.
The problem I have with the story and its resolution rests on the utter selfishness of the hero. Those who serve in the armed forces are so often, much like their families, portrayed as selfless, but holy crap, Sully is a selfish, and I mean selfish person. His actions repeatedly indicate that he thinks of himself first, and Lucy and everyone else second… or a distant third. He's so dedicated to himself he probably takes up spaces 1 and 2. When Sully is repeatedly selfish, there's no easy forgiveness for that, there's no realization that he's been a terrible husband and person in general. He doesn't change drastically. His behavior just…is. That's who he is.
The challenge is when I ask myself if I believed in their happy ending, if I believed that he'd remember to think of someone other than himself in the future past the end of the story, if I had confidence that he wouldn't hurt Lucy again. I have to ask myself if he changed enough. My answer is a reluctant “No,” because I didn't see enough of Sullivan doing something OTHER than thinking solely of himself. I didn't see Sullivan thinking of how Lucy felt; he thought about how he felt. He didn't want to make her smile just because it would mean she was happy for a moment. He wanted to make her smile because of how it made him feel. Even his moments of generosity in the story were ultimately all about him. All of his motivations were selfish, despite the insistence of selflessness.
There was also a considerable number of moments where the characters were parroting information, explaining what military organizations for families at home do and how they work and who they are – it was like someone reading an “About Us” page as dialogue. The realism of the emotion and the conflict wasn't always matched by realistic dialogue. As you probably know, Bob, “people don't really talk like that” is one of my biggest peeves in reading.
Lucy doesn't change much, but she endures. Sully doesn't change enough for me by the end of the story, and there were times when his actions toward Lucy felt less than genuine and more like manipulation of her emotions and her physical response to him. But even with all the things about this story that bothered the crap out of me, I'm still thinking about it. I'm still questioning my response to the story, asking myself whether Sully's actions as a hero would have ever satisfied me as a reader. I liked Lucy a great deal and felt incredible, painful empathy for her, but I never got to the point of forgiveness that Lucy did. I didn't really believe her forgiveness came from genuine trust (or that it should have because I read Sully as very manipulative at times). It seemed to arrive more from exhaustion than anything else.
As I said, I have a lot of respect for the challenges this novella set up and tried to overcome by the end, but I don't think all those attempts were successful. Regardless, I had a lot of admiration that they were there in the first place.