The Words Between Us
The Words Between Us is a story of loss and discovery. Loss of friends, loss of love, loss of family and what happens when we discover it was only ever lost because we were the ones that misplaced it.
This narrative is told in a first person, dual timeline format, beginning in the present. The day her father is to be executed, Robin Windsor carefully avoids the news. She’s never been much of a watcher or listener to the media anyway and today especially the reports can do nothing but stir painful memories for her. Besides, she is determined to finally set the past behind her and forge towards a brighter and better future, and she begins by holding a sale in her beloved (failing) used bookstore. Hopefully, bargains will draw customers in and the charm of her quirky little shop will turn them into regulars who will help her stave off the soon-to-be-inevitable closure.
But while Robin is more than happy to ignore the journalists, they are all too eager to seek her out. Instead of buyers for her books, she finds her little emporium surrounded by news vans and eager correspondents anxious to hear how the daughter of a man held responsible for the deaths of many, many people feels about his impending demise.
She is able to lock the reporters out of the store but unable to do the same with the past. Amongst the bills and advertisements in her mail is a package with a first printing, first edition copy of Catcher in the Rye, a novel which harkens back to the last time she had felt utterly vulnerable. The year her parents were arrested for unspeakable crimes and when her fourteen year old self was sent to live with a grandmother she’d never known in a town she’d never visited. It was there, in a lonely cemetery adjacent to her grandmother’s trailer, that she’d met Peter Flynt, a boy who was mourning the loss of his mother. The books that he used to place on her grave he soon began to share with Robin instead and the two bereft kids found themselves bonding over classic literature.
As the days go by, the newscasters lose interest in her, but the volumes Robin shared with Peter appear with increasing frequency. She can’t help but wonder why he is making contact with her now – and if anything good can ever come from revisiting a past as troubled as hers.
From almost the very start of the story, we know Robin feels Peter betrayed her, but the author is coy with her information. We don’t know why Robin is convinced of this treachery nor exactly what terrible, awful things her parents did that has her labeling them monsters. This information is parcelled out in pieces as we move back and forth in time through the story, watching the burgeoning romance between Robin and Peter in the past and contrasting that with Robin’s modern day fight to save her business, Brick and Mortar Books, from imminent closure.
The novel hinges on Robin’s ability to totally shut people out. While many would question the guilt of beloved parents, Robin accepts completely and almost immediately that the evidence against them is credible and that they deserve never to see or hear from her again. She rejects the loving overtures of her grandmother and any attempts at friendship from the girls in her school. When she believes Peter has been disloyal, she doesn’t give him the opportunity to defend himself, and in spite of his many, many acts of kindness towards her, is able to cut him thoroughly out of her life. It is only slowly, as the story progresses, that we see Robin change with the help of her best (and only) friend Sarah and her employee Dawt Pi Both ladies have to work extra hard to breach the emotional and relational defenses Robin has erected over the years.
Typically, I would find a character as isolated and unforgiving as Robin unlikable, but the author does an excellent job of making her heroine vulnerable and engaging. It was easy to see that young Robin was in shock, likely suffering from PTSD or an attachment disorder as a result of the complete upheaval of her life. She wasn’t so much trying to be detached, judgmental and aloof as she was being careful, making sure to limit how susceptible she would be to further disappointment. It was understandable that she believed Peter had hurt her because her parents had done such a thorough job of it. She bumps along through most of adulthood as a cold and distant person until Sarah and Dawt Pi breach the barriers she has placed around herself. Once she lets them in, she begins to see the past through different eyes.
Which is deeply important to the tale because Robin’s past and present are tangled together like a ball of yarn after a cat’s done playing with it. She longs for family but can’t build a new one until she resolves the issue with the old one. She longs to create a better future for herself but can’t until she can come to terms with all the pieces of her past. She longs for a new love but will never have one till she makes peace with her old love. A lot happens in this book, but all of it is emotionally driven and revolves around Robin and her ability to deal with her storied history. I can’t emphasize enough what a great job Ms. Bartel does of connecting the plot points – the fight to save the bookstore, the truth about what happened with Robin’s parents and the link between Robin and Peter – with the emotional arc of her heroine.
Most books have faults and while this novel’s are minor, they are still worth mentioning. One, which isn’t so much a defect as a point of interest, is that while listed as Christian/Inspirational, this tale does not meet the typical evangelical slant of that definition. God is mentioned, Robin crashes a church service when looking for Dawt Pi and prays to “Dawt Pi’s God” at another and she gives some thought to metaphysical issues, but the predominant tone is of someone seeking spiritual answers, not of a certain belief in salvation through Jesus. Certainly in terms of morality, this tale most likely won’t suit conservative believers. The second issue is that the story has more than a few implausibilities/improbabilities. They are woven into the narrative well enough that I was able to hold on to my suspension of disbelief and just accept things as they came.
There is a love story here, which follows an unusual format. While the book ends with a happy for now, I think there are strong signs that it will be a happily ever after.
The Words Between Us is a women’s fiction/mystery mix which I think will be pleasing to the fans of either genre. It’s a unique, beautifully written tale that packs a nice emotional punch and has just enough of a puzzle to leave you guessing through the very end.
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