Sharon Cullars spins a tale of passion, obsession and past lives in her debut novel, Again. A genre-bending book that defies easy categorization, it’s different from any other Brava release I’ve ever read. But while it is consistently intriguing, it’s also too uneven to be all that satisfying.
By day, Tyne Jensen works at a small African-American community newspaper that’s in danger of closing. At night, her dreams are filled with visions of a passionate lover and frightening violence. Elsewhere in Chicago, architect David Carvelli is experiencing similar dreams. They finally meet at her sister’s wedding, and each senses something familiar about the other. Eager to explore the connection he feels between them, David pursues a relationship with her, even though Tyne is leery. She’s attracted to him, but also uneasy for reasons she can’t explain.
Meanwhile, David’s mother, a seer, begins to have disturbing premonitions about her son. Elsewhere, a college student named Rhea Simmons conducts research on a young black woman named Rachel Chase who her great-great-grandmother knew in the 1870s. Through it all, readers are shown flashbacks to the relationship between Rachel and her white lover, Joseph Luce, which we know from the prologue did not end happily. Obviously, their story and the modern-day relationship between Tyne and David will prove to be related.
My review copy is labeled Contemporary Romance, but this really isn’t a romance novel in the conventional sense, something many readers may wish to know so they can adjust their expectations accordingly. If I had to, I’d call it mainstream fiction with some romantic and paranormal elements. There’s very little actual relationship development between the main characters. It takes a while for them to meet. They share a few dates and have some hot sex, but don’t really spend much time together, as large sections of the story focus on the subplots and the other goings-on in their lives. In the final third, it really stops being about Tyne and David at all, as the plot overwhelms their modern-day relationship. It’s worth noting that while the book has a happy ending of a sort, it’s more of a beginning for their relationship than a resolution.
As I hope I’ve made clear, there’s a great deal happening in this book. In addition to everything listed above, there are a couple of subplots that take up too much time while contributing too little to the story. Tyne loses her job when the newspaper finally folds, but she was unhappy anyway, so it’s all good. To get a job at a new magazine run by a friend of David’s, she takes an assignment on spec, investigating a tire factory that may be illegally dumping its waste in a poor neighborhood. Meanwhile, David’s architectural partnership breaks up when one of his partners undermines the business, and David has to start over. While somewhat interesting, most of this just seems like filler that doesn’t really go anywhere or seem to have much of a point.
With so much going on, pacing and plotting are important factors to making it all work. Again falls short in both areas. The book gets off to a somewhat leisurely beginning, with plenty of exposition and introspection that slow the pace. This is a problem that occurs intermittently throughout this often narrative-heavy story. Plus, the subplots seem to come and go at random, with the less interesting ones (like the main characters’ career issues) given more time than the more compelling ones. The sections involving David’s mother’s premonitions and Rhea’s search through history grabbed me the most, yet they’re left to simmer on low burn in the background for most of the story.
The author’s portrayal of life in both nineteenth-century New York – particularly in black society – and contemporary Chicago is vivid and believable. I did like both Tyne and David, at least until their personalities took some drastic changes in the story’s latter stages that turned me off both of them. Meanwhile, I was prepared to be caught up in the emotion of Rachel and Joseph’s tragic love, but after a promising beginning, it takes a creepy turn. Joseph comes across as frighteningly obsessive and Rachel seems too weak when it comes to him. The book takes a dark turn in its final third that didn’t entirely work for me. While there were obviously seeds planted through David’s mother’s subplot that things were going to get darker, most of those glimmers of foreshadowing were pushed so far in the background thanks to the extraneous subplots that it was easy to forget about them. As a result, the change felt too severe, as an amiable contemporary tale swerved into more sinister territory with too little buildup. I have no problem with dark, almost horror-tinged stories, but I don’t like getting whiplash from sudden shifts in tone.
I’m not the kind of reader to hold it against a book when it turns out to be something other than what it’s labeled, as long as what it is instead is satisfying in its own right. But whatever it is, Again ultimately did not satisfy. Though always interesting and never dull, it’s also disjointed and too unevenly developed to entirely work. Still, Sharon Cullars shows she has the potential to deliver a compelling, passionate story. Hopefully her next book will better fulfill that promise.