Forgiveness by Jean Brashear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was in the mood for something different, and Forgiveness by Jean Brashear delivered quite well. I waver between 3.5 and 4, but I'm naturally inclined to round-up (being a teacher and all).
Forgiveness (2005) is an installment in a rather unusual series published by HQ's SuperRomance category. I am a fan HQ SuperRomance, as they are longer, meatier and more "real life" than some of HQ's other categories. SuperRomance is also one of the best romance category for finding solid secondary characters, a particular enjoyment for me. Most of all, it's a reliable source of solid mature contemporary, non-paranormal, romance. However, the novels can also be a bit typical, following a lot of standards that can sometimes feel comforting, but can also be a bit blah if you're not in the mood for romance. Last night, I was not in the mood for a typical romance, but I couldn't find a mystery in my house that really sparked my interest, and I was in "too-lazy-for-non-fiction" mode at the moment. So, I chose Forgiveness, which did not seem too much like every other small town romance.
And it certainly is not.
So, picture the scene: It's nearing 6 am, and I'm reading. I know that I have a few scant hours before my child wakes and eats me alive if I am running on no sleep. Yet, I am reading, still. I am also red, puffy, tear-stained, and completely clogged up (sexy, I know!). At that point, I had only a few chapters left, and I had been crying for about five hours. Yet, I had to finish! Not a pretty tale to tell, but I think it certainly says something very good about this book.
Forgiveness tells the tale of Ria, a young woman who's been living in her car for months with her four year old son. Eventually, as winter approaches, she returns to the family she left six years ago. She left, feeling rejected, because she was responsible for the death of her younger brother. Always the "bad seed," she fled, knowing she could never replace the "favourite." But now, malnourished, weak, and helpless with a young son to feed, she's forced to try to mend fences. And she becomes increasingly fearful that her mother has figured out a way Ria can repay her debt - by giving up her own son to the family!
Harrowing. To the say the damned least.
(Side note: Some of the basic plot might make you recall the Anne Hathaway film Rachel Getting Married (2008), which features the return of an alcoholic sister/daughter who was responsible for the death of her parents' child while drunk/stoned. The stories are quite similar, but the reactions and characters are quite different. If you find the subject matter of the film compelling, you might like Forgiveness, but even if you disliked the film you still stand a good chance of liking the book.)
In Forgiveness, Ria is a woman who is filled with self-loathing in every single inch of her. Self-destructive, unhealthy, paranoid, filthy, depressive, beaten down, objectified, you name it. Ria is an absolute mess. The one thing she feels she's done right in her entire life is have Benjy, her son, and now she begins to feel she must sacrifice him to punish herself for the life she took. But Benjy is the only reason she is a live, the only thing keeping her from letting go, and the only thing keeping her going, so she struggles with this revelation. On the one hand, she feels like she doesn't deserve to have her son when she deprived her parents of theirs (a loss that subsequently destroyed the family in her absence), but on the other hand, she and Benjy are a bonded pair. The boy does love his mother - how can she bear the guilt of disappointing him, too?
(I believe Ria also has morbid undertones, which gave me shivers at various points throughout the book. It's never very overt, but rather hangs about the margins. She seems to build a paranoia for herself that if she doesn't relinquish her child to the parents she destroyed, fate will punish her by having him die anyway. This is a subtle thread, but very present and adds a great deal of urgency to the book, in my opinion. It also stood as a bleak reminder of the stresses on parents struggling to feed their families - death, disaster, doom become constant preoccupations when suffering is prolonged enough.)
But Ria also sees that poverty and depression has put demands on Benjy that four year olds probably shouldn't really face. Basically, she is struggling with the all-too-common belief that children are better off not being with their parents if the parents are struggling, no matter how much the kids love them. All around her, people are telling her what an idyllic life Benjy could have with her family - but do they say this to convince her to stay with Benjy, or to convince her to give him up and leave?
Did I *like* Ria...? This is a difficult question. Not really, I have to admit. She was a brash, childish, mopey, masochistic, ignorant, and often completely irrational punk. And so damn defeatist! If she were a real life person, I could see she'd be very difficult to be around for long. BUT, as a character? I couldn't help but sympathize, since the book gives such vivid descriptions of her pain. She didn't become a defeatist out of nothing, so seeing her life made the character work for me.
My major complaint about her was how obnoxious it is for adults to still focus so much energy on imagined childhood slights ("Daddy let Betsy help build the tree house! Nothing's ever mine any more! I liked it better when I was an only child!"), and Ria did this constantly.
However, when viewing the complete tapestry of her life, including the lifelong decline of her self-esteem and the horrible loss of her brother due to her drinking, it's hard to blame her for being broken. And, not to go into too much personal detail, but there were things in the book that resonated with me quite deeply, so I admit that this coloured my view of the book.
So, yes, the main storyline touched me. Ria's desire to live combined with her desire to self-annihilate moved me. I did commune with this character, and the author places Ria, warts and all, very directly and effectively. I felt like I knew her, and by the end of the book, I was sort of her critical (yet sympathetic) friend. I kind of wanted to brain her, but I was also rooting for her. I think this is a sign of a strong book, personally.
Ria, though often weak, scared, and abused by men in her quest for anything that remotely feels like love, is not your typical romance heroine. Sure, she's not admirable, but she's very human, and she does draw compassion from me. Brashear was courageous in creating such a flawed character. There's not a Mary Sue in sight!
Now, as to why I'm more inclined towards 3.5 than a full 4, despite the book's compelling readability - I warn you, if you want to read a romance, this book might not be for you.
Sandor, the hero, is a Hungarian-born handyman who is half in love with Ria's mother, and certainly devoted and grateful to her. He starts off perceiving Ria as a threat to his patroness, having heard all the "bad seed" stories and blaming her for the destruction of her mother's life. Through the course of the book, however, he finds his inherent goodness, integrity and compassion draws him to see Ria not as a monster but as a very sad person, and he wishes to be her friend. By the end of the book, he sees her as even more, and Ria begins to flourish and heal under his outsider's view of her.
This romantic relationship is really just a subplot, which might annoy some romance readers. The romance feels like an after-thought. Sandor hardly ever directly interacts with anyone, including Ria, and the majority of the time we see through his eyes, he's merely contemplating Ria and her family. He has his own backstory, true, but he's not very well integrated into the book itself. He's on the outside looking in, quite literally, and there were moments I even forgot about him. He was likable enough, but not very important.
There's also a minor subplot involving the relationship between Ria's mother and father, which I understand is continued in another book in the series. I have to say, this is the only area I found the book predictable and trite. Certain obstacles in that relationship are swept aside in a few scant, convenient paragraphs, and this subplot marred the book for me rather than added to it.
Therefore, though I kind of loved this book, I can't really recommend it to romance readers, without a caveat. Basically, despite its romance subplot, Forgiveness is more like "women's fiction" than a "romance novel".
It's not really about romance - Forgiveness is a story about motherhood, family, and, well, forgiveness. Self-forgiveness, most of all. It's also about mothers and daughters, and the way we feel compelled to both mirror and reject our mothers, and balancing the need to belong with the need to become individuals. It's also about flawed mothers, and how the mistakes we make reverberate for a lifetime, especially in our own guilt.
While this may not be a romance, it is a love story, alright. But not a love story in the way most will expect from a SuperRomance. I found myself surprised this was a HQ book, actually, and it makes me wonder what Brashear could do (or has done or will do) outside of category romance. I will keep an eye out for her, because I think this is a writer who could write off-genre very well.
With the above notes in mind, I do recommend this book if you enjoy emotional, messy, human stories. Be warned, however, this book is remarkably heavy on despair, and might be more angsty than you want if you're looking for a light romance.
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