Fallen from Grace
Grade : A

As a member of that group of romance readers who have grown tired of rehashed plot lines that were only marginally interesting the first time, archetypes as shorthand for "real" characters and happily-ever-afters that seem conjured from thin air, I'm an absolute pushover for a real love story between real characters whom I can actually conceive of knowing in my own life. Laura Leone's Fallen from Grace is a stand-out in this regard, and I can only hope that its publication is the foreshadowing of a brave, new world in the romance industry (hope does spring eternal among us romance readers; it's one of our defining characteristics).

That said, let me add a qualifier: this is not a story that will appeal to all romance readers, as it deals with some gritty realities, albeit in a way that tells enough to inform and engage without ever becoming preachy or overwhelmingly dark.

Sara Diamond is the published author of a discontinued medieval mystery series who is aggressively pursuing a fresh start. Despite a barrage of concerned chastisement from her father and sister, she impulsively sells her San Francisco condo to take a second-floor apartment in an eccentric, old Victorian situated in one of that city's less posh neighborhoods. There are two features that recommend her otherwise questionable living quarters to her worried relatives: the large balcony overlooking Glen Canyon Park, and the hunky but very nice neighbor who shares it.

Ryan Kinsmore is ostensibly a male model, but actually makes his living as a paid escort - with all that that implies. He leads two very separate lives by living where he does - the only connection his employer is allowed to his personal life is the cell phone that he always carries. He finds himself seeking out more and more time with Sara, whose friendliness and simple sincerity beckon like an oasis in the midst of an emotional wasteland. He knows that she is as drawn to him as he is to her, and while he cannot make himself avoid her, neither is he heartless enough to encourage feelings between them that can only lead to disaster.

But, in the immortal words of Blaise Pascal, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing," and without plan or intention, they reach a critical crossroads in their relationship that forces Ryan to reveal himself fully to Sara: his honor and his feelings for her demand unflinching honesty when she makes it clear that she wants to become lovers.

Given the subject matter of this book, I was pleasantly surprised at how it speaks so well to the evolution of emotional intimacy. The beauty of the love story between Ryan and Sara, as well as Sara's conflicted relationship with someone close who has just announced that she is a lesbian, is what it tells us about real love. That it protects, rather than harms. That it nurtures, rather than manipulates. That it accepts, not because that is the easy course, but because it is the only course possible when it comes to those we love unconditionally. And the very nature of Ryan's work serves to throw into bold relief the physical intimacies between Ryan and Sara, where ravenous desire meets more tender emotions, where a man who has been taught total control allows himself the "free-fall that any other guy in love wants." These scenes perfectly capture the synchronization of lovers who succumb to complete mutual immersion, both in the bedroom and out.

Leone's characters are richly drawn and fully human, and she displays extraordinary skill in showing how Ryan and Sara, both individually and together, work through the complexities of their situation in a believable way. Sara can't imagine what Ryan sees in someone as physically ordinary as she is, never realizing that, while she came to love the gentle soul beneath his beautiful exterior, he started by loving her soul and worked his way outward. It's not surprising that Ryan would come to yearn for Sara and what she represents, with her loving family and the vast array of friends she attracts, her intelligence and her wry humor. Nor is it surprising that Sara understands the impossible choices Ryan had to make even while insisting he no longer has to make them. Even the villain of the piece is not totally black and white; there are sufficient gray areas to leave the reader wondering about the minute possibility of redeeming qualities in this individual's past. I dearly loved Sara's sister and father, who fret and fuss about her choices but are always a solid presence lending their support; the gentle bickering between Sara and Miriam is as real as their shared amusement over their father's quirks. And, finally, there's Adam, a homeless, teenaged pickpocket who inadvertently opens the possibility for his own salvation by stealing from Ryan.

I loved the many nuances of this story, those subtle details embedded so faultlessly that you almost overlook them. One scene that captured my fancy has Sara preparing to go out while Ryan is updating her on how he spent his day. While she's listening and asking questions, she's also absent-mindedly searching for her purse, then her keys, never noticing that Ryan has not only correctly interpreted her distraction, but knows her habits well enough to locate the missing items and stuff them into her hands without a pause in their conversation. It's a scene so ordinary that any couple can immediately relate. But it's also the kind of detail that convinces cynical readers like me, more than a thousand protestations of love ever could, that Sara and Ryan meld together in a way that is enduring, that plays out in hundreds of such day-to-day scenes stretching into infinity.

I understand from doing some research on Laura Leone that she wrote romances some years ago, but moved into SF/Fantasy (under her real name, Laura Resnick) because her subject matter was too hard to "sell" to romance editors and publishers who thought readers only wanted fluff. Apparently, such short-sighted attitudes still exist, as Leone had to move mountains to get Fallen from Grace published even now. I applaud the willingness of small publishers, like Five Star, and editors, like Russell Davis, to question conventional wisdom (which can be so unerringly wrong) and take a risk. And, being an optimist (when I'm not being a cynic), I have every hope that their risk will be rewarded; truth will out, as they say, and the simple truth is that Laura Leone is a writer who can craft an interesting and emotionally compelling love story that resonates on many levels.

So, for what it's worth, brava, Ms. Leone! And more importantly, more!

Reviewed by Donna Newman
Grade : A

Sensuality: Hot

Review Date : August 9, 2003

Publication Date: 2004

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