Unbreak Me is a blistering romance; searing and brutal and yet tender and sweet. There are moments of gentleness that will melt you – but much of the book is a bruising indictment of a legal system that allows rapists to go free, and the government structures that caused the levées to break during Katrina.
A newcomer to Wild Falls, Montana, Haitian-Creole cowboy LJ Delisle accidentally frightens Andra Lawler, the co-foreman and boss’ daughter at the ranch where he’s applied for a job by showing up in the stable early for his interview. It turns out Andra placed the ad without her father’s knowledge; she thinks they desperately need more trainers to handle the horses from weaning to saddle breaking so she can take more time out to train them for riding purposes, but her dad disagrees about hiring more people. There’s a reason why Andra’s father doesn’t want to hire another man onto the ranch, a reason that Andra can’t bring herself to share at first; in the meantime, she desperately needs help training the latest batch of foals, and LJ’s good nature and determined work ethic are marks in his favor. When he breaks a troublesome colt to lead rope handling, she hires him on the spot.
The enigma of Andra is one LJ becomes determined to puzzle out – and he chooses to do it with baking. This extends to preparing the evening meal together; they’re so comfortable in the kitchen that LJ offers to teach her how to cook, an offer which Andra reluctantly accepts. For the first time in ages, the relaxed meal planning and food preparation she and LJ do together allows Andra to enjoy spending time with a man who’s not a blood relative. Soon LJ learns the reason why; Andra’s still living on the ranch and with her father, self-isolating thanks to a panic disorder resulting from the sexual assault she suffered in college and the media circus that happened after she pressed charges and went to trial. The assault has left her mistrustful of all men- everyone, that is, but LJ.
Soon, LJ is making plans to ignore his musical gifts and stay in town, and his relationship with Andra is heating up. But with his beloved mother’s health in question, he’s forced to confront the nightmares of his past and return to the Ninth Ward. Will he stay in New Orleans, or return to Montana and Andra’s arms?
A warning for those going into this novel unprepared; it’s no lighthearted romance. Unbreak Me wrestles with many heavy matters, such as the racism heaped upon LJ by both the very white Montana world to which he moves and the racist system of life post-Katrina in New Orleans. The disapproval Andra and LJ face from her father as an interracial couple is very well-handled, as is the racist nightmare and deeply scarring trauma that was Hurricane Katrina. Andra’s rape is also discussed quite heavily in a brutally honest, frank and heartbreaking way, as Andra tries to figure out how to reconnect with her own sexuality after her trauma. But at the novel’s center is a warm romance about two people who need to heal, and the way their love for one another causes the hope for salvation to bloom to life.
I liked Andra and LJ, who are both fully-fleshed-out characters worth rooting for who make sense as a romantic couple, and the way they listen to one another and work together for their happy ending is appealing. I liked Andra’s best friend, and all of LJ’s friends, and his refined mother.
There are a few problems with the book that kept it out of DIK contention, though. Sometimes, the angst the narrative serves up is excessive; as you can tell from the above description, there’s a lot of trauma in LJ and Andra’s lives. On top of this, LJ’s mother is dying of lupus that they can’t afford to treat, and this last additional chunk of misery heaped on them both ends up feeling too soapy to be believed. And while New Orleans post-Katrina is portrayed with accuracy, LJ’s offhanded comment that victims of the disaster, caught in a cycle of poverty and government lackadaisy, are somehow to blame for their own misery because they have defeatist attitudes didn’t wash with me. He does say that it’s right that they blame their bad luck for their problems but I thought it was odd of him to think after what he’d been through.
However, Unbreak Me works in a visceral way. It will find its way into your nerves and your mind and make you fall in love with its characters – but the romance, like many others, proves to be a complicated one.