All Beautiful Things
Those readers who are active on Twitter may have seen Nicki Salcedo’s response to Suzanne Brockmann’s speech at RWA. If you haven’t, it’s worth a read. I found it infuriating and eye-opening all at once. But then, as I read through Salcedo’s description of her debut novel, All Beautiful Things, I knew I had to get my hands on this book. A Beauty and the Beast story with the heroine in the role of Beast? Sign me up.
As with many début novels, this one has a few weak points, but it’s still a compelling read. Salcedo has a distinctive voice that really sets the mood for this deeply emotional story. The novel opens with letters from Graham Sapphire to Ava Camden. In the letters, we learn that Graham believes his brother Joel has been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, and we see also that he has compassion for Ava, the victim of the attack.
The main action of the book starts with the impending release of Joel Sapphire from prison. Seven years previously, he was found drunk and standing over Ava Camden with a knife. Ava’s face had been slashed, and this brutal attack has altered her life. From what the author shows us of Ava’s perspective, she lives every day with the towering anger that her attack awakened in her. She carries scars on her face and with a few exceptions, largely shies away from attention and human contact.
After his release from prison, Joel disappears and his brother Graham, who is searching for him, shows up at the homeless shelter where Ava works. Graham is still convinced of his brother’s innocence and Ava feels equally certain of his guilt. Not surprisingly, these two don’t initially have tons of positive things to say to one another. And yet, there’s something.
At times the dance between Graham and Ava feels painful to read. However, as I read, I realized the pain for the reader comes not from dreadful writing or over-the-top clichés, but rather from Ava’s pain and darkness bleeding out across the story. While she’s built a life for herself since her attack and her shelter is truly a passion of hers, Ava does shy away from much of life. Her solitary life and her unwillingness to be photographed all seem perfectly understandable, as does her bitterness and rage over what violence has stolen from her.
Most readers would probably understand it if Ava simply pushed Graham away and refused to trust. And yet, there’s something that makes her trust and listen to him. The story dragged a tad at the beginning, but the hopefulness of the storyline kept me reading. The fact that Ava and Graham don’t get an easy HEA kept me reading, too. This isn’t a book where The Right Man somehow undoes all the awfulness that the heroine has endured. Ava has some real issues, and while things improve throughout the book, the pain doesn’t all just magically go away.
While I found this book to be a thoughtful read, I can’t say it was perfect. The pacing dragged a tad in places, and some of the secondary plotlines were frustrating. For instance, Ava’s mother appears to be somewhat in denial about the aftereffects of Ava’s attack, particularly the psychological ones. Her insistence on forcing her daughter into wearing the right clothes, working at a big law firm, etc…, even when it’s patently clear that these are not healthy choices for Ava, just felt like it was being laid on too thick. While Ava comes from one of Atlanta’s most prominent African-American families, it is obvious that a public life in high society is not her goal, and as a reader, it was frustrating to see everyone except Ava’s mother recognizing this. Frustrations that advance the story can be helpful, but this one got way more space in the story than it needed.
And speaking of psychological effects, some of Ava’s issues show themselves in a compulsion to photograph crime scenes. Readers see her struggle with this, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. This is a big enough piece of Ava’s life that it seemed like one should either explore it in more depth or just not even bother having it in there. As it was, it just felt like something that signaled Ava’s mental state, but could have used more explanation.
All Beautiful Things wasn’t quite what I expected. From the cover copy, it sounded like romantic suspense, but instead readers get treated to a contemporary romance that has a fairytale quality to it. There’s a lot of darkness here, but there’s also a very hopeful, beautiful romance. I quite enjoyed it.