If you’re a fan of Mariana Zapata, by definition you must be a fan of slow-burn romances. It’s the style used in every one of her books that I’ve read, and it is utilized in Dear Aaron. While this is not my favorite of her novels, it’s a good story and a must-read for any Zapata fans.
The book is set in 2008 during the Iraq war, and the first half of the story is told through a mix of letters, emails, and IMs as Ruby Santos writes to Aaron Hall as part of the Help A Soldier project. What begins in awkwardness, with stilted questions about favorite foods and animals blossoms into a real friendship, and eventually something more. When Aaron is finally stateside on leave, he convinces Ruby to come visit him, and although she’s uncertain, she agrees. No reader will be surprised to see the romance that began in letters realized in person.
Although I wasn’t expecting the story to move quickly given my experience with the author, the book felt slower than expected to start with, as the first half is told in an epistolary format. In the past I’ve seen this style used to good effect, but Ruby and Aaron being strangers proved a hindrance here and their initial writings feel awkward and lack chemistry. It takes a lot of time for them to get to know each other, and for the reader to get to know them in turn. While this did drag at times, it also felt realistic. Ruby and Aaron are total strangers at the beginning, without the ubiquitous presence of social media to give them a sense of each other. Baby steps are the best thing for their relationship, and Ms. Zapata does this so handily that I can’t even point to the moment they started to have chemistry strong enough to pull me in. All I know is, in the beginning it was awkward, and by the midpoint when Ruby and Aaron are meeting in person it feels like they’ve always been together.
One of the first things that becomes apparent about Ruby through her letters is her tendency to underestimate herself. She’s a bit of a Cinderella in the beginning – an underpaid seamstress who works for two of her aunts and gets constant criticism for taking time off when she has pneumonia. While Ruby’s immediate family cares for her, Aaron is the one who pushes her to leave these bad jobs behind and expect better for herself. I loved the confidence he imbues her with… and hated how it disappears when she meets Aaron face to face. Ruby has trouble seeing herself as a desirable woman, even when Aaron’s comments make it clear he’s attracted to her, and this causes some problems as they try to build a relationship beyond their letters. While I liked Ruby and her character growth overall, her constant self-doubt did put me off a bit.
Of course, this situation is not helped by the fact that Aaron is a typically enigmatic Zapata hero. Because the story, when not conveyed in letters, is told from Ruby’s perspective, we can only ever guess at what’s going on in Aaron’s head. While there are plenty of indicators that he’s in love with Ruby, it takes him a while to state it clearly, which just adds to Ruby’s doubts. From a reader’s standpoint, this makes it a bit harder to get to know him, but not impossible. Aaron’s a bit secretive, and clearly wounded by his experiences in Iraq, although PTSD is not a focal point here. Ms. Zapata has created a balanced and interesting hero in Aaron – strong but vulnerable, secretive but open. His quiet confidence is a perfect complement to Ruby’s personality, and I really loved seeing them grow together.
At the end of the day, Dear Aaron is a good book and will be particularly enjoyed by Zapata fans. The slow-burn romance, undervalued heroine, and mysterious hero tropes are all well executed here and the novel is definitely worth a read.