Desert Isle Keeper
One of the best things about this stellar book is the fact that it’s told from Levi Grainger’s PoV. Hiking the Appalachian Trail in honor of his sister, who was recently killed in action, Levi runs into all sorts of issues expected of a novice hiker. He also runs into Thad Connors, a withdrawn but more experienced hiker, who ends up as Levi’s trail guide. As the hike and their stories unfold, Levi and Thad find peace in each other in ways neither of them expected.
Levi is ready for the quiet the trail will provide. He just completed a season of a reality show and enjoys some minor fame from that; not recognized everywhere, but enthusiastically embraced when spotted. It sounds like a mix between The Amazing Race and the UK’s Coach Trip, for the record. Levi and his mother are still reeling from the death of Layla, who was killed by a suicide bomber while serving in the military. They were, and are, a tight knit family and her death is still leaving ripples in their daily lives.
Layla and Levi had planned to hike the trail after both his show and her deployment ended. With her death, he shifted plans to hike it solo so that he could grieve her in a tangible way. This element of literally walking out his grief, talking to her on the trail, preparing for his hike in her memory; those moments arrested me. I could feel Levi’s grieving process, not just read it.
One evening, he encounters a man in the moonlight. They have a brief interaction, but Levi is left feeling affected by it. He is drawn to the stranger immediately. Creatively calling him “Moon Man”, Levi assumes he’ll never meet the intense man again, but Moon Man becomes part of his hike.
Through Levi, we learn about Moon Man slowly. His name is Thad Connors and he’s a little older than Levi, but not much. (Levi is twenty-three, Thad twenty-six.) He never watched Levi’s show, he’s an experienced outdoorsman, and they’re both gay. For a while, the only real hint we get at Thad’s thoughts come in the form of terse text message conversations he’s sharing with someone named “M”. They show him as a man not up for talking to anyone, a man on the run from something ugly that happened in his life, a man not willing to deal with that ugly.
They fall into a rhythm, hiking during the day and sleeping together at night. Levi tells us repeatedly he knows this relationship will end when the trail does, but we know pretty quickly he wishes that wasn’t true. Thad is drawing Levi into his mystery, but both are too stubborn and eventually they split up. Their coming back together takes up the latter part of the book, and the way it’s crafted is breathtaking. To delve into Thad’s baggage would be spoiler territory; every reader deserves to have this unfolded for them as I did.
Thad’s pain is both run-of-the-mill and unique to him. It’s quite like Levi’s in that way; we’ve all had to grieve, but none of us have had to grieve Layla specifically. The familiar but distinct is carefully dealt with here. The balance struck by Ms. Erickson made these characters so tangible, I could nearly see them on their hike.
If you can’t tell already, I found this book to be lovely. I adored both Thad and Levi as people, adored their relationship, and adored getting to know them. When I finished the book, I sighed deeply with contentment at having spent time with complicated but lovely people.
The book is marked as part of a series, and the epilogue touches on the couples from the previous books. They meant little to me as this was my first encounter with Ms. Erickson’s works, but I’d imagine that fans of the series will love the quick check-in we get in the last few pages.
Clocking in at 177 pages, this is just north of novella length, but still a quick read. For anyone with a heaving TBR pile looking to spend a short amount of time with realistic characters and a lovely happily ever after, Overexposed is for you.