When it comes to reviewing contemporaries, adult leads hung up on high school drama ranks pretty high on the complaint list. However, I’ve long said that a good author can make even the most problematic plot element work, and that’s exactly what Anne Calhoun does with Unforgiven. This book centers on a hero and heroine weighed down by the baggage of their pasts and even if high school happened years ago for them, the long-reaching effects make sense here.
Adam Collins wasted no time leaving Walker’s Ford, South Dakota after graduation. After spending twelve years in the Marine Corps, he’s back in town. He’s come to serve as best man at his best friend’s wedding (to his own ex-fiancee, no less) and to enroll in graduate school in a nearby city. Now that he’s a civilian again, Adam has to face his past.
And part of that past involves Marissa Brooks. Toward the end of high school, Adam and Marissa had what sounds like a pretty obsessive relationship. They spent tons of time together and did pretty much everything short of actually having sex. When Adam returns to town to celebrate the upcoming wedding, he and Marissa find themselves in a pantry closet having sex by the end of the night. It’s one of the few “sex at first sight” scenes I’ve read that actually works. There is something raw, emotional and downright combustible about the way Calhoun writes this scene. As a reader, I knew Adam and Marissa were going to end up together but it’s abundantly clear that they’re not ready to head that way just yet.
The story takes place during the lead up to wedding and as the wedding draws closer, we see Adam and Marissa drawing closer together and dancing around the idea of trusting one another again. We also learn more about their pasts with each chapter. As a teenager, Adam was wild and reckless, taking lots of risks which eventually led to a fateful, destructive evening that darkened his life. Marissa has lived in Walker’s Ford all her life, the daughter of a family who came from money but lost it all. She has poured years into her dream of restoring the old family home to its former glory, becoming something of a self-taught construction worker.
Both Adam and Marissa have a lot of regrets in life, and since much of this story centers on how they deal with their darkness, the book has a very serious tone much of the time. Adam and Marissa both have very real issues and even though Marissa’s insistence that Adam couldn’t possibly be back in South Dakota for good got old after a while, they mostly dealt with these like actual adults. I also appreciated that the author did a great job of showing the darker, more claustrophobic side of small town life. Yes, everyone in your small town might know your name and your history, but that means you might spend your whole life being slut-shamed for no good reason, or trapped and unable to escape from small jealousies, gossip, bad job prospects or just plain loneliness.
The backstory that develops against that backdrop adds a lot to the story, too. For a small town with a limited cast of characters, there’s some heavy drama packed in there. If you’re looking for the antidote to the soft, warm, ready-for-Hallmark-channel-adaptation romances, this just might be it. As revelations of the past unfold, Calhoun shows us quite a story. And given what we learn about the wedding at the center of the story, I just have to say that Adam’s toast as best man is just perfect.
My only major quibble with this story came with the development of the romance. There are some beautiful, emotional love scenes in this novel and at times Adam and Marissa almost seem to catch on fire. However, both of them are such locked-down people that it’s hard to get inside their heads and as a result, the reader can feel somewhat detached from them and the development of their relationship. I noticed this particularly in the middle of the book and it made things drag a little for me. However, by the end, everything has come together smoothly and the story has a great ending.
If you like your love stories more on the romangsty side, Unforgiven definitely qualifies. I liked Calhoun’s voice and since the next book centers on a couple who intrigued me in this book, I’m sure I’ll be back for more.