Lexi Jewell left Scarlett Springs a donkey’s age ago, choosing a life of her own in Chicago as a CPA rather than stick around a town that only offered her pain and judgement. She’s back now for reasons beyond her control and planning to high-tail it out again as soon as she can sort her father’s alcoholism and save their family B&B. Simple right? Well, probably. Until she runs into her first love, Austin Taylor, and complications abound. This second chance story has some problems but is overall a complete delight.
Even before we get into the story, Pamela Clare offers us readers a thorough glossary of climbing terms. The book deals extensively with search and rescue teams in the Rocky Mountains and she wants to make sure we’re going to understand their lingo. If you pick up the book, pay attention to that glossary; Ms. Clare doesn’t ever really explain the terms in context. This gives the novel a feel of deeply grounded authenticity. These characters clearly and confidently exist outside the confines of the book’s pages and the town breathes with reality. While some of the descriptions of climbing and rescues and the minutiae of it all did admittedly get tedious for me (and is the reason for the B+ instead of the A), I still appreciate her commitment to this world.
While I’ve never read anything by Ms. Clare before, I know she is known for romantic suspense. While she claims that this story is straight contemporary romance, there are still elements of suspense in here that bridges the two sub-genres. I’ll unpack that claim a little more as I describe the plot, but know that if you are someone who is averse to any level of violence or suspense in your books, this one does contain moments of it. It is by no means enough to classify this book as a full-blown suspense novel, and I felt that subplot worked completely and enhanced the story overall, but I want potential readers to be aware.
The plot is both straightforward and complex. It is not complicated at all, but layered in the way that life is. I was enraptured by the story, only taking brief breaks from reading it during a long train journey. The heroine returns home because her stepmother is threatening to divorce her father. While Lexi and her father do not get along and haven’t since her mother’s death many years before, she feels a tug to head home. This issue also happens to correspond with some serious professional tragedy that makes leaving Chicago pretty easy.
In her internal monologues, Lexi makes it pretty clear that she has no intention of staying for long and is dreading running into the few folks she knew during her adolescence – especially Austin Taylor. Austin was her first love who smashed her heart to smithereens before she left for college, although he and his family remember the roles in that breakup as quite swapped. Thus, when they run into each other at the very beginning of the book, the animosity is electric between them.
After a long conversation one evening which starts out with fireworks of one variety and ends with ones of quite another, the two decide to go the ‘friends with benefits’ route for the length of time that Lexi is in town. It quickly becomes apparent to both of them that Lexi’s roots in the town are only growing deeper with each passing day. Readers can feel the tension in her as she tries to simultaneously give into the feeling of home and run from it as fast as she can. The dramaturgical payoff for that tension is worth the angst, by the way.
The suspense comes into play during the latter half of the book. As I said before, it’s not a major element in the way it would be in most romantic suspense, but it is still a significant event and serves as the climax of the story. A fugitive is on the loose in the area and Lexi ends up getting caught up in his plan to escape capture. All’s well that ends well, of course, and the happily ever after is guaranteed.
Speaking of happily ever after, I really appreciated how it’s a holistic one. By that I mean that it’s not just Lexi and Austin who find each other, but Lexi finds it in herself and in the redemption of a few other relationships from her past. She thought she left a scorched earth behind her when she left Scarlett Springs and it’s delightful to see her realize that the view of humanity from seventeen is a bit different from the view of humanity one has in later adulthood.
Between the rich attention to detail, historical intricacies of a region and culture whose customs about which I know little, and the realism infused in each character, I would highly recommend any fan of contemporary romance to pick up Barely Breathing as soon as they can.