Book Review

The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren

If you’ve listened to our We Look Ahead to 2018 podcast episode, you might have heard me fumbling for words over how much I enjoyed The Ones Who Got Away. I want to issue a warning that the book focuses on the survivors of a school shooting. It’s a touchy subject to tackle, especially in romance, but it was also one of the main reasons why I picked up the book. However, if you’re sensitive to depictions of gun violence, I’d recommend your skipping this one.

The premise of the book is that these survivors – dubbed in the media as “the ones who got away” – are returning to their hometown to film a documentary. The shooting occurred twelve years prior on prom night. The proceeds of the documentary benefit the victims’ families and organizations that fight against gun violence.

The hero and heroine are both survivors of the shooting. Olivia Arias was a “goth Latina” in high school, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Finn Dorsey was a golden boy from an affluent family. The two of them had a secret relationship, smooching beneath bleachers and whatnot. Finn takes a girl named Rebecca to prom. She’s popular and pretty. You know how this story goes. While Liv and Finn have snuck off to argue and angrily kiss in a janitor’s closet on prom night, the shooting starts. Finn leaves Liv to go check on Rebecca and winds up taking a bullet for his prom date. All three of them survive. Finn is heralded as a hero. But while he was gone, one of the shooters finds Liv in the closet and points his gun at her. He winds up not shooting her, but the incident causes some serious PTSD in Liv.

Cut to the present day where everyone has somewhat reunited. There isn’t a deluge of names and faces to remember, as the book centers firmly on Finn and Liv, but other characters do make an appearance, including Rebecca.

Both Liv and Finn realize that they aren’t the people they used to be and haven’t exactly lived life in the “seize the day by the balls” way they had wanted to after the shooting. Finn is an undercover FBI agent who just got done with a two year cover. He plans on taking a break and engaging in some solitude at a lake house. He invites Liv to join him one weekend. He thinks being around an old friend will help him readjust to civilian life and the weekend would give Liv an opportunity to recapture her passion of photography. She always dreamed of making it a career, rather than being a nine-to-five web designer.

So there’s a second chance romance, some forced proximity, and plenty of angst.

My first concern with picking up this book was whether the “shooting” element would be a gimmick. It isn’t. As time goes on, I think it’s going to become more and more difficult not to meet a person affected by gun violence. It also provides the backdrop for examining how each survivor has been affected by that one moment in time, and I’m really looking forward to learning more about the other characters. We get enough glimpses of them to make you want more, but not enough that you think you know their whole story. There are “flashback” scenes, where characters remember what happened on prom night and of course, many of the characters have lingering issues stemming from the shooting – PTSD, nightmares, lasting injuries and disabilities. It makes every page tense and heavy. It’s a tough book to read at times and I found myself taking significant breaks just for a breather. I don’t mean this in a bad way, as it made for a unique reading experience.

There are also some great female friendships. I was concerned that Rebecca and Liv would be pitted against one another, but after the shooting, four women from that night (Liv and Rebecca included) created a little mini support group. They met in grief counseling and though they lost contact as adults, it was really nice to see them together and reunited. There’s a great scene where one of the other women refuses to let Liv “get busy” with Finn because she’s had a bit to drink. She walks Liv back up to her room and it really warmed my heart. Not that Finn was a danger to Liv, but that making out while inebriated could lead to some regretful decisions.

Liv and Finn do share a bit of a drunken make out session early on in the book, but they both realize it’s probably a bad idea. What I liked about this was that there wasn’t any back and forth. Sometimes in romances, there’s a pervading insistence on “we shouldn’t” but that doesn’t stop the hero and heroine from sucking face at every opportunity and then having a guilt boner afterward. Liv has no problem calling Finn out when he’s using flirtation to avoid talking about serious subjects. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a fantastic slow burn. They realize that first and foremost they want their old friendship back rather than taking advantage of pants feelings. Another thing I enjoyed about Liv was that she had no problem mentioning that she’d had previous relationships, both romantic and sexual, while Finn had been celibate for the past two years. Heck yeah for a heroine with a sex life!

My biggest complaint is that sometimes if felt like ten pounds of plot in a five pound bag. The emotional turmoil and friends to lovers elements were enough to keep the book going. However, there’s Finn’s undercover nonsense that didn’t seem necessary. He was undercover for two years. To “get out” of his cover, the FBI helped him fake his own death. Throughout the book, he’s paranoid about his image getting out. During the documentary, he asks not to be shown on camera. He thinks the bad guys he infiltrated could come after him at any moment. Additionally, his main motivation for his undercover job is that he wants to find the people responsible for putting guns in the hands of his school shooters. That seemed like a stretch and I doubted he’d ever really find an answer. The shooting is twelve years old by now, and tracking down those responsible for providing those specific guns seemed rather farfetched.

I cannot express how much I enjoyed Liv as a heroine. She’s a complex character who felt incredibly real and had so much depth. Though she survived a tragic and frightening experience, the book doesn’t get bogged down in what I call “tragedy porn,” where one horrible thing after another seems to happen to a character. She has moments of happiness, regret, can make silly jokes, and enjoy a good margarita, while dealing with PTSD and night terrors.

As the first book I finished in 2018, I think it’s a great sign of my reading to come. Hopefully. The second book, The One You Can’t Forget, focuses on Rebecca and I think I may be even more excited for that one. If the subject matter doesn’t scare you off and your catnip is friends to lovers, slow burn-y goodness, The Ones Who Got Away is highly worth the read.

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The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren

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  1. cayenne says:

    I love-love-love all of Roni Loren’s work, so my grabby mitts got ahold of this one pronto. I just finished reading it, and I +1 all of Amanda’s take.

    For me, the only downside was the fact that we lost Liv-Finn time to series backstory, and I think future books’ relationship plots will be stronger for not having do extensive setup. I’m also really looking forward to Rebecca’s book – the hints in book 1 about her experiences were – if I’ve read them right – pretty gut-wrenching. Can’t wait!

  2. Anonymous says:

    This series sounds like everything I didn’t realise I wanted, and I am so glad to read that the author really is dedicated to going there. SO looking forward to this one.

    I’ve never read Roni Loren before. Is this book representative of her work? If so, I might need to check out her backlist…

  3. Amanda says:

    @Anonymous: I’ve read a couple books in her backlist and enjoyed most of what I’ve read. There were a few misses, but most of her backlist seems to be more hits than misses.

  4. Milly says:

    Roni Loren hits pretty much all the right buttons for me and this one was on the mark. I loved it. I was so happy to see that these characters were damaged and still dealing with the aftermath in a way that they were functional in their new reality while at the same time struggling to reclaim bits of themselves prior to the tragedy.

  5. hng23 says:

    I just finished reading this yesterday! Some of the things I liked: that Liv & Finn didn’t immediately jump back into their old relationship; that the shooting itself was recognized as part of the backstory, but didn’t overwhelm the romance; that there was a strong female friendship (this book passes the Bechdel Test like whoa). And of course, the ironic title: b/c while the characters survived, the event will always be with them.

  6. Kareni says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this so have only skimmed your review. I may come back to read it after I read the book.

  7. Francesca says:

    I’m glad to read this was treated sensitively. There was a school shooting in my smallish community when I was 13. I was a classmate of the shooter’s sister, so I have seen up-close how devastating this can be. For me, this book is a pass, but I applaud the author for tackling such a difficult subject without sensationalism or tragedy porn.

  8. Ruth says:

    Thanks for the review. I wanted to mention that I just finished Aly Martinez “Wrecked and Ruined” series, which involves some of the same themes (an incident that has long-lasting repercussions for a group of people (in this case, two separate incidents that bring the hero and heroine together in the last book); PTSD; depression; suicide; characters who don’t magically heal and whose problems go away when they find “the one”; strong female friendships).

    Also, a while back there was a request for a heroine in need of redemption, and in this series, the villain of the first book becomes the heroine of the last book (yes, I am now reading books with “oh, there was a request for a theme/character/situation like that on Smart Bitches” in the back of my mind). I will note that the guys are often overprotective assholes, but at least the stories explicitly acknowledge that. Unlike many books, most of this behavior is linked to their past traumas and not “that’s how alpha men act when they really love someone,” which I find annoying!

    Trigger warning: the third and fourth books deal with a particularly gruesome rape and its aftermath.

  9. Pat says:

    I coincidentally just read this book this week and totally agree with the reviewer. I too lived in a community with a school shooting so this book caught my attention and it felt realistic. I really liked the maturity and complexity of and the progression of their relationship…it felt authentic and was pretty hot too. It’s a book that lingered with me after I read it and is one of the most satisfying romance I have read in a while.

  10. Ruth says:

    It turns out I bought the first three books of the series last October and somehow never read them, and now the last book is out. So I read them this weekend (laundry, what laundry?).

    I think what I like best is that the shooting is not depicted graphically. The entire scene is never “shown” — only what each character personally experiences, from their viewpoints. Only one actually depicts someone getting shot (two of the main characters are shot, but it’s never actually described). So while it deals with violence, it isn’t gory or sensationalized.

    The other thing is that it really deals sensitively and, I think realistically with things like survivor guilt and the ripple effect on indirect victims, including the town itself, which has suffered from the negative image people have of it while at the same time being inundated with true crime/tragedy tourists.

    I think the third book is probably the most interesting from that aspect, but they are all good.

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