The First Move is emotional, rich and difficult. It's also very good. The characters aren't thin or dispatches from Stock Characters R' Us. They are real people with real feelings – a LOT of feelings. Brimming with feels. Overflowing and making a mess, all these feels. They made my eyes sting — I had a lot of empathy for the heroine and she followed me around for days after I finished.
Renia is the sister of the heroine from Reservations for Two, and she has a secret. A Big Ol' Secret. And while I'm trying my best to do the plot summary that fully captures the story, let me take a moment to snarl at the cover and the number of exclamation points in the cover copy:
An unlikely encounter…but he'll take it!
It seems like fate…or something! When Miles Brislenn spies the girl he had a crush on in high school—at his ex-wife's wedding, no less—he can't let the opportunity pass. He might not have had the courage to talk to Renia Milek back then, but he definitely does now. And that's not the only thing that's changed. Gone is the rebel Renia used to be. In her place is a beautiful woman who's reserved, cautious…and holding on to secrets.
For Miles, this second chance with Renia is too important to let her past stand in their way. He'll do whatever is necessary to help her accept her choices and move on—even if that means a salsa lesson or two! Because now that he's made the first move, he wants the second to be hers.
That is WAY too many exclamation points to represent this book. This book has ANGST. It is angst salsa dancing. Yes, there is dancing, but it is not just a thing they do. It is a Thing. That is Important. I feel like anyone who buys this book based on the cover and the back copy is going in expecting a breezy second changes love story, with “So You Think You Can Dance” romance massaged in, and it is SO not.
Renia has secrets, as I said. In high school, she lost her father and her brother in an accident, and that set young Renia into a spiral of Many Bad Decisions in a Row. When Miles knew her, she was wild and beautiful and out of control, and he was dumbstruck by her – but she was not going to notice him. Nor was she in any position to have a relationship with him or anyone.
Years later, Renia is the photographer at Miles' ex-wife's wedding. Miles is a guest because he and his ex-wife are on good terms, and he seems genuinely happy that his ex has found someone she wants to be with. The reader learns the full story of how they got to those good terms, but intially, it's not an impossibly perfect divorce of rainbows and flowers. Now, it's a functioning relationship, one that works for them and their teenage daughter.
Miles sees Renia and approaches her. She doesn't remember him, and she has no room for anyone or anything in her tightly controlled life. The wild and brazen person Miles knew years before is gone, and the adult Renia is cold, rigid, and focused on her career as a photographer – and on not letting anyone close to her.
One day a year, Renia locks herself away from everyone and hides. This year, she waits by the phone for a call that doesn't come. When it does, Miles happens to be there, and he sees the effects of one of the secrets she hasn't told anyone, ever. As Renia and Miles get involved – hesitantly and sometimes grudgingly on her part, eagerly on his – their pasts and secrets come out, one spinning after the other, and there's a lot to excavate and detonate before they have any hope of a smooth and possible future.
Here's where I struggle: the cover copy and the cover image don't represent the levels of powerful emotional exploration that go on in this book, but if I'm going to explain what I found so powerful, I'm going to either be vague and unsatisfying about the things I want to talk about, or I'm going to spoil things that are powerful as you realize them in the story. I think I can say this much: Renia left when she was in high school because she got pregnant. Her mother, still grieving for her husband and son, sent Renia to live with her aunt while she was pregnant, and when Renia gave birth, she signed all her rights away and placed the baby girl up for adoption. She has never looked back closely at that decision for any length of time, but she carries the knowledge with her, and the after effects of relinquishing a child, with the accompanying damage to her relationship with her mother and her sister.
Renia made me cringe and ache inside. She brings new layers to the idea of being standoffish, and there were moments when she treated Miles so coldly, and he was affable and flexible about it, eventually getting her to talk to him honestly instead of pushing him away.
Miles has some issues, too. His daughter is a teenager, and he worries about her and is terrified for her – and isn't sure how to take the knowledge that Renia as a teen did many of the things he fears his daughter might do. My frustrations with this book rest mostly on how Renia and Miles changed and grew, and to discuss that, I'll do my best not to give too many specifics away. I had to ask myself if I was being hypocritical in my reactions to Renia and Miles. I cringed but was tolerant when Renia was rude to Miles, when she tried to shut him out, and understood. But Miles has a similar problem – he becomes really hurtful and cruel when he's mad, and twice judges Renia really harshly when he's promised not to. I'm still mad at him for that. Renia had painful experiences that she personally endured that crafted her reactions. Miles just has a shit temper and is secretively judgmental when he pretends not to be, and that made me so angry.
I believed that by the end of the story, Renia had learned to change her ways and not be cruel to others when she's panicked, to not shut everyone out. In the beginning, for example, she was waiting for a phone call from her daughter, and shut everyone out of her life – even blocked their phone numbers. By the end, she'd learned to ask for help from her friends, to ask for someone to listen to her problems. But I didn't equally believe that Miles wouldn't be so cruel when he was angry or scared. Despite promising not to, he did the same thing again when he was upset and angry – and hurt Renia in the process. I wanted to hit him with things. Heavy things that would leave dents.
There's a lot of hurting to overcome in this story. I think Renia was in a much better place at the end of the book, and I had so much respect for how hard it was to change her habits, her way of thinking about herself. She had a delayed grief and processing of her emotions, but she was working on it. And she had so much to sort through, like a storm captured in a too-small space, sitting in the back of her heart all the time she was awake and breathing.
But Miles, I didn't see him working. I saw him fucking up. He was extremely mellow, friendly, and laid back, persistent guy who was determined to break through the protective barriers Renia had built between herself and everyone, until he lost his temper and became the type of guy who would cause those barriers in the first place. I saw him acknowledging his problem and saying he was sorry, but I never saw him say, “Shit, I have a problem that's still with me and I'm being a giant dickass about it. I need to fix this.” I wanted Miles to have less of a massive behavioral gulf between laid back persistent friendly guy and angry jackhat assbeast. I believed in the changes that the heroine made, but not so much in the professed changes the hero said he was going to make. I wanted to believe him, and believe that he was going to change effectively, but I had a hard time talking myself into that belief when he kept screwing up so hugely.
That said, the emotional journey the reader takes with Renia is so powerful. So, so powerfully done. All of the Polish cultural and culinary elements from the first book reappear in this one, though not as much with the food since Renia is a photographer. There is a scene with Renia, her mom, Miles and his daughter and dinner and it was heartbreaking. I wish I could quote it but it would give so much away. But it's a tearing emotional look at parenting and being a good parent by choosing to not to be a parent and how little respect and honor is given to that decision. The book explores what it means when someone decides NOT to parent, and explores the long and short-term aftermath of deciding as a parent that you can't be a parent. Lohmann's use of mirroring to reflect Renia's decision in different characters adds layers to the question of parenting, and caused me to think about the questions in this book long after I thought about it. There are so many intricate pieces to this story, all of them sharp and some of them painful, but well worth reading.