I’m always up for a good angsty read, one that’s moving and emotional without crossing the line into depressing. Forgiveness is that kind of story. It has its flaws, but it also delivers potent emotions and powerful scenes, making for an effective read.
Growing up, Ria Channing was the bad seed in her family, the rebel who could do nothing right. After years of testing her parents’ patience and love, she finally did the unforgivable. She was drunk behind the wheel in the car accident that killed her teenage brother David. Unable to bear her family’s judgment and her own guilt, she fled. The six years that followed weren’t easy, as she struggled to survive on the streets of Los Angeles. She got pregnant and gave birth to her son Benjy. When her closest friend in the world dies, he makes her promise that she’ll go back and make peace with her family, if not for herself then for the sake of her four-year-old son. With great nervousness, Ria heads back home.
She’s stunned to discover that her parents, whose love had seemed unbreakable, are now divorced. Her beloved father Malcolm is living with a younger woman. Her mother, Cleo, the nemesis of her youth, greets her, but is tentative toward the daughter who brought so much grief to their family. Ria’s sister, Betsey, always the perfect child, is furious that she’s back and makes it clear she wants Ria out of their lives. With no money and nowhere to go, Ria is determined to stay so that Benjy can have a home, even if she’s not sure there’s a place for her.
Sandor Wolfe is a recent immigrant from Hungary trying to make a new life for himself in the United States, his father’s homeland. Cleo was a good friend to him his first year in the country, and her generosity helped him get established. Sandor had heard all about Ria and was prepared to hate her, the daughter who’d brought so much grief to his friend’s life. So he’s surprised when he meets the woman herself. Instead of the evil person he’d come to expect, he finds a lost soul, a tormented woman who hates herself more than anyone else could. He reaches out to her, and is there for her as she tries to come to terms with herself and her past.
This is a story that will appeal to readers who enjoy tortured characters. At the same time, it likely won’t appeal to those who want their romance heroines to be conventionally good and noble. Ria is a very damaged person, the kind not everyone may be able to relate to, and some readers might find she her too difficult. For instance, she and Sandor first meet when she goes to a bar, gets drunk to drown her misery, and needs to be rescued from a dangerous situation when she flirts with the wrong man. This was scary enough the first time, but she does the same thing again later in the book. She sometimes lashes out, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. She’s a challenging character, a very fallible human being who sometimes makes frustrating choices. This is exactly why I found her so compelling, though I know she won’t work for everyone for the same reasons.
For me, the emotions the author generated from the very first page were so gripping that I was immediately caught up in Ria’s story. From those initial moments, as she tries to reassure Benjy that the people they’re going to visit will like him even as she’s terrified to see how they’re received, her feelings are vivid and real. Through all of her frustrating moments, I had no trouble empathizing with her struggle. She’s someone who has never felt good enough or been comfortable with herself, who seldom intends to do or say the wrong thing but somehow manages to do so. Ria is a deeply flawed person and she knows it, but can’t seem to stop herself from repeating her harmful tendencies. She loves her son more than anything in the world, yet she isn’t sure that she deserves to be his mother or that he wouldn’t be better off without her. And of course, there’s the constant guilt she feels because of David, the brother who’d always loved her no matter what, until he died because of her.
Any attempt I make to describe this story is only going to make it sound depressing, but I don’t think it is. The story isn’t manipulative and for the most part the emotions feel real. Ria’s journey to forgiveness and acceptance is very moving, and more than once during this story I found myself with a lump in my throat. The story is poignant without being relentlessly downbeat, and there are some very sweet and heartwarming moments. Ria bears a lot of guilt and self-loathing, but she’s also a fighter trying to come to terms with herself. She’s surrounded by a varied and interesting cast of characters who nicely add to the story. They include Sandor, with his unique background and different perspective, and her grandmother, a flamboyant former starlet with plenty of stories to tell about her scandalous days in the movies.
The book’s strong emotions are what made it for me and helped carry me past its weaknesses. This is a sequel of sorts to the author’s January release Coming Home, which told the same story from the perspective of Ria’s divorced parents, as they dealt with her reappearance in their lives and got together again. While this story works on its own, there were times I suspected it would work even better if I’d read that book first. Readers who have read Coming Home may find the subplot about Ria’s parents repetitive, while I found it rushed and unsatisfying, with too many events glossed over. Parts of the story aren’t fully developed, the writing is occasionally choppy, and the storytelling isn’t always the smoothest. I wish some of the flashbacks had been set off in italics or something. It was sometimes jarring to find myself plunged into a flashback with little warning that what we weren’t in the present day. Sandor is a bit too noble and perfect, and he’s not as vivid a personality as Ria. While the romance is nice, the ending does feel rushed and isn’t entirely convincing (though at the same time I found it hard to begrudge the characters their happy ending).
But then,Forgiveness is more the story of one woman’s journey to make peace with herself, her family and her past than it is a love story. In that respect, it’s a satisfying read. Ria’s story is an emotional one, with numerous moving scenes and memorable moments. Even though there are some flaws in the telling, this is one story I won’t soon forget.