I didn’t much care for the movie Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow. But there is a song in that film that describes this book exactly, Timing is Everything by Garrett Hedlund.
Here are the lyrics I am thinking of:
You know I’ve had close calls
When it could have been me
I was young when I learned just
How fragile life could be
I lost friends of mine
I guess it wasn’t my time
Timing is everything
Elizabeth Fitch was sixteen going on seventeen when she indulged in her first bit of teenage rebellion. Refusing to attend the summer program her mother had planned for her, Elizabeth hits the mall, makes a friend and goes to her first nightclub with a homemade fake ID. She would have been more than content drinking cosmos and dancing with Julie, but Julie meets a guy with a friend. Elizabeth receives her first kiss from the handsome man with the Russian accent and receives her first invitation to a “private” party at his cousin’s house. The party is a hit – a mob hit that is, with Elizabeth the only witness to all that transpired.
Elizabeth remains amazingly strong as she enters witness protection and prepares to testify against the powerful Volkov family, a branch of the Russian mafia. She receives more love and friendship from the marshals that protect her than she ever did from her mother, so finds herself happier there than she ever was at home. Then that too goes horribly awry – and Elizabeth Fitch ceases to exist for many long years.
Abigail Lowry is an enigma that utterly fascinates police chief Brooks Gleason. She may not be the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen but something about her private, reserved manner draws him in while the far less subtle methods that the other ladies of Bickford, AR use leave him wanting to hide in the Ozark mountains. Following his instincts, Brooks engages her in conversation at the local gourmet grocery store. She gives him the brush off, but not before he takes note of the fact she’s wearing a gun beneath her casual jacket. He finds it odd that someone would feel the need to go armed to buy food. It intrigues him even more. As he draws closer and closer to Abigail all he can ask is: Who exactly is she? And what is she hiding – or hiding from?
Fans of the TV show Bones will love Abigail/Elizabeth; She reminded me a great deal of Temperance Brennan from that show. Like Bones, Abigail is extremely bright. When catastrophe struck, sixteen year old Elizabeth had already been at Harvard for two years. Also like Bones, Abigail has a stilted, awkward, facts-laden way of speaking. She is very unnatural in social situations but attractive enough to draw sexual partners. She is casual about sex because she has no real desire to establish deep human relationships; she has been burned by them too often before. While her mother had always wanted her to major in medicine, Abigail’s natural interest was cyber crimes and computer programming. This not only enabled her to make outstanding fake IDs, it has given her a lifelong career with the opportunity to work from home. Abigail is content with her isolated life, satisfied in having just the companionship of her dog Bert. Till she meets Brooks.
If Abigail reminded me of Bones, Brooks reminded me of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. Given that I love Coach, this was a real plus for me. Brooks has that casual, good ol’ boy way of speaking that hides a keen mind and a strong personality. Where Abigail is isolated, he is completely immersed in his family and community. Brooks knows everyone in his sleepy town, knows all their secrets, and is friends with most in spite of it. He is also a good cop, an honest cop. He hasn’t done any time in big cities like New York or Chicago, but he did his time in Little Rock and has an innate understanding of the criminal mind. He also has good instincts about people and trusts his gut. In Abigail he sees not trouble but fear, not a criminal past but a violent history. His protective instincts, as well as a strong sexual attraction, pull him toward her. His love of her sharp mind and quirky ways have him staying.
Given what I’ve just described Abigail and Brooks should have been yin and yang, two parts that make a whole. They really weren’t, for me. While I understood that Brooks represented everything Abigail had always yearned for – normal where she was far above that, friendly where she was shy, family oriented where she was an orphan (for all but the technical fact that her uncaring mother actually still breathed) – I did not understand how he was a good fit for her. I saw them together for several years and then I saw the differences pulling them apart. Abigail lived a reserved, somewhat reclusive life because that persona fit her inclinations. Had she been a friendly, small town girl I think she would have found a way to make that persona work as a disguise. Instead, she chose something completely different, and to me that said a lot about their possibility of a future together. I also didn’t get what Brooks saw in her – yes she was smart and quirky, but how could they build a relationship on that? It wasn’t like she brought out the closet nerd in him. He found her intelligence amusing and a bit awe inspiring, but he didn’t match it wit for wit. Again, after the novelty wore off I could see him quickly becoming annoyed by the very things that attracted him to her. Don’t get me wrong – I found their relationship entertaining and a much needed shot of joy in a dark landscape, I just didn’t completely buy it would be forever.
It wasn’t just their HEA I found implausible. I struggled with how it came about. Abigail caved very quickly and under very little pressure when Brooks and then later, his mother came calling. They all just liked each other right away. It felt very storybook to me and frankly, annoying. Had I had people incessantly just forcing their way into my life I would have pushed back and pushed back hard. Especially in Abigail’s situation and given her history. She should have suspected them. She should have suspected them a lot.
On the reverse side of that equation, it would be easy to find both Abigail/Elizabeth and the first section of this book unbelievable, but they worked for me. People as smart as she is really do exist, and like the song suggests, timing can be everything. She was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She attracted the attention of the wrong people. Real life abounds in coincidence. I set disbelief aside and just went with the suspense portion of the story. It was interesting, easy reading and I found myself finishing just one more chapter before turning out the light and rushing through my day just so I make some time to get back to Abigail and see how she would resolve this mess she was in.
I have to add that while I like the separate suspense plot Brooks was involved in, I am not sure it did much for the story. In some ways it even dragged the pacing down a bit. Still, it gave us a chance to see him in action and that was interesting. I suppose it also added plausibility to the fact that he was able to aid Abigail in finally freeing herself from what happened that night when she left home a teenager and came back a desperate woman.
I enjoyed the characters in this novel, and enjoyed the reading of it enough to give a recommendation. While I think it requires you throw an extra dollop of suspension of disbelief into your morning coffee, I also think fans of Ms. Roberts will not be disappointed.