Desert Isle Keeper
The One You Fight For
Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away series brings romance into a decidedly unromantic story – the lives of a group of friends who survived a Columbine-like high school shooting. Considering the nature of the subject matter, this is unlikely to be a romance for everyone, and definitely won’t be a comfortable subject for every reader – but for me it was a well done combination of love story and everyday storytelling that was wonderful to read.
Dr. Taryn Landry has been fighting a war with her own guilt for years. Her sister Nia was one of victims of the Long Acre High School shooting fourteen years earlier, and Taryn suffered with survivor’s guilt ever since. She responded to this personal disaster by becoming a psychology professor and by stuffing her life with bright, energy-spending activities. She spends much of her time in a research lab when she’s not teaching, trying to create a program that will help protect children from school shooters and act as a stopgap between on-site prevention (i.e armed guards) and crisis management. In addition, Taryn devotes a lot of her time caring for her mother, once an independent, strong woman, who has been subject to paranoid delusion and clingy fearfulness ever since the shooting, all of which leaves her little time for a social life. And though Taryn dreamed of a life of world travel, she has spent her whole life in Long Acre, hampered by panic attacks, unable to make the big leap and move away. After a terrible date arranged by her best friend, she wanders into a downtown bar during open mic night; an acoustic performance of 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up leads to a panic attack when she remembers Nia’s love of her singing. But little does she know destiny is calling her name.
Shaw Miller experienced a different trauma related to the Long Acre High shooting – his brother Joseph committed the crime. Shaw had once been an Olympic hopeful in gymnastics, had a happy family and dreams for the future – and all were lost in Long Acre, his brother shot dead, his family traumatized by press attention, his father lost to addiction and the scandal killing his dreams. He has PTSD and became an alcoholic; buried in years of shame, guilt and trauma, he’s tried to lie low and move on with his life, getting sober and changing his first name to Lucas. When a friend asks him to move back to Long Acre to help him run a struggling gym, he accepts, albeit a little reluctantly. When a series of events connect him to Taryn, he wonders if he’s really deserving of such a miracle – but his only plan is to get the gym in the black and flee town before the press figures out who he really is.
After their chance meeting during Taryn’s panic attack at the open mic night, she and Shaw are instantly attracted to each other but drift, thinking they’ll never see each other again. Fate brings them back together at a Halloween-themed run for victims of violent crime, where she collapses, breathless, during the run from another panic attack. She accepts Shaw’s offer to help her train as part of her stress-management techniques, and soon, the pair figure out that they’re the wellspring of each other’s pain – but don’t expect to be the wellspring of each other’s passion. The more they train together, the closer they get and the hotter the flame between them glows, but Taryn and Shaw have a lot to overcome to make a fresh start together, to reach the dreams they’ve both been hiding and to claim a future untainted by the shadow of the past.
The One You Fight For is heavy, and I mean that in the absolute best way possible. This is a midnight-dark subject to write a romance about, and there are occasional bobbles along the way, but Roni Loren gets the entire trauma of the grieving process – from panic to grief to acceptance and growth – perfectly right. Add on a swoonworthy romance and you start out the year with one excellent contemporary.
I really loved Taryn. Her love of James Spader movies, her wish for a normal life, her strong connection to music and her strength of conviction make her an engaging heroine. Shaw is just as memorable, his drive more strongly athletic and devotional in nature, his sense of humor slightly sharper and edgier.
As a couple, they support and challenge each other, nudging the envelope. There is a note of forbidden romance here, for the truth could destroy Taryn’s mother and ruin Shaw’s new business; some might find this idea slightly hinky, but it works. What doesn’t work, however, is a late-book plot complication that blooms into an annoying cliché. There were quite a few more interesting plot threats to work with, and when the book focuses on Taryn’s inability to balance her mother’s illness with her relationship with Shaw, or meditates on gun violence and nature versus nurture predators, it was easy enough to stop moaning and grinding my teeth about that one narrative choice.
Of the supporting characters, Taryn’s friend Kinkaid is hilarious – a pushy and forward busybody who just wants Taryn to be happy. The two of them licking their wounds after a downbeat moment cheering for/giggling at a biker’s spot-on Michael Jackson impression is one example of their wonderful ridiculousness. Taryn’s other friends Rebecca and Liv – heroines of the series’ two previous books – appear in this one but aren’t central to the story. Shaw’s friend Rivers’ motivation shifts mid-book; at first he wants to use Shaw’s fame to boost the gym’s profile, then he wants to keep his presence under wraps. I found this to be pretty confusing, and it’s partly why I detracted a few points from the final grade; I did the same for Taryn’s parents’ attempt at pushing her around (I know their traumas run deep, but when your child’s heading toward forty I think you’re beyond the point of demanding they break up with their significant other.)
For some readers this may be an extremely upsetting and traumatic subject for a romance, and I can understand why they might never read it. But I found it to be a beautiful and spellbinding to experience. The One You Fight For is in the early running for romance of the year.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier