I finished this book last week, and I needed a good long time to think about it and wrap myself around it before I felt comfortable blogging about it. This is one very deep book. In a nutshell, here is the blurb from the back of the book:
As teenagers, they were called the Outlaws and they kept the police of Glen Oaks on their toes. Though the tight-knit group has left their checkered pasts behind, time has not been kind to the six friends. Beth Donovan is now a widow raising a teenage son alone. Linc and Margo are living proof that sometimes love is not enough. And Joe has hurt Annie as badly as a man can hurt a woman…
But now, the man blamed for Beth’s husband’s death is back in town. Three-time Winston up champ Tucker Quaid has come to try to revive Glen Oaks’ flagging racing scene. His very presence sends Beth’s already troubled son into a downward spiral. With her friends rallying around her, old grievances – and passions – flare. Just when they thought their crazy days were over, the Outlaws are about to discover that no one can predict what lies around the next turn on the track…
This story of six best friends from a small town in New York is incredibly emotional. Shay runs the gamut from physical and emotional domestic abuse to a religious cult’s physical and emotional abuse of a child, from child abandonment to peer pressure, from sexual harassment in the workplace to the death of a spouse, and its effects on the spouse and children left behind. Along the way, these characters discover forgiveness, redemption and normalcy, and rediscover the strength of friendship.
Kathryn Shay has chosen not one tough topic to tackle, but several, and does it with sensitivity and depth. The plot never sags or moves too quickly. All the characters are realistically drawn; intensely emotional, sensitive, and believable. The beginning of the story flashes us back 20 years to the teenage years of this motley crew. We learn about the family life of each of the six teenagers, both the good and the bad. We come to understand the feeling of disenfranchisement that so many teenagers, particularly small-town youth, feel. We feel for these kids, and care about them – despite their delinquent tendencies – while at the same time wanting to beat some sense into them as if they were our own children, wondering the whole time how parents could let their children end up so disengaged from the society in which they live.
Linc and Beth, brother and sister whose parents died and who were left with emotionally unavailable and elderly grandparents to run amok in the town, were taken in by the owner of the town diner, after an attempted robbery. (Phew, there was a run-on sentence!) This is their first experience with forgiveness, one which shapes the rest of their lives. We learn that he gave them the support they needed to become caring, responsible adults.
Flash forward to present day. We learn that Linc has become a minister. My only complaint with the character development, much of which is gleaned through flashbacks, and most of which was flawless, was that I never did fully and completely understand what drove Linc to the church. Yes, the forgiveness he received from the victim of his crime was obviously a driving factor, but with much of the backstory told in flashback, a quick remembrance of a past conversation would have been enough to satisfy this little niggling sense of unfulfilled desire for a further look into the inner workings of Linc's mind. Mind you, this didn't spoil the story for me, because there was enough there, but I felt like there could have been more. Linc’s entire adult life is based on his deep and abiding belief in God, and it would have been nice to understand a bit more fully why that is. Shay did get her point across, though, that it was the guidance and love of the diner’s owner that brought Linc to that special place in his life, which is why I only felt slightly cheated rather than letting it become a story ender for me. Because the rest of his character is fully developed, and completely whole. Throughout Linc’s story, he never loses that distinct “Lincness” that we come to know and love in the telling of his teenage experiences. Shay shows that ministers are normal, everyday people, with regular feelings, hopes and desires.
The rest of the characters are amazingly well drawn, thoroughly fleshed out, and intensely alive to the reader. We watch a woman with no belief in God – in fact, an intense disbelief – struggle with her love for a minister. We watch the victim of wife abuse come to terms with the return of her seemingly reformed abusive husband. We see a widow and her son come to grips with the return of the man they hold responsible for their husband/father’s death. We watch a teenager struggle with grown up issues and learn how to deal with life responsibly.
None of this is done tritely; all involved are deeply emotional, hurt, intense, struggling, loving, realistic human beings. Watching the love, support and caring between the lifelong friends is really beautiful. Shay shows that real grown ups can have truly meaningful friendships and support one another through thick and thin, while never losing their ability to be their own people. All of the characters want a normal life, and the journey there is the point of the story. What is a normal life? How do we deal with horrific events in our lives? How do we deal with everyday pressures and desires? How do we love and protect our children while teaching them to be responsible, caring, contributing adult members of our communities? How do we come to terms with the understanding that what we desire with all our heart is unavailable to us? How do we learn to forgive and move on? All these issues and more are explored in depth – not an easy feat in a 400 page novel. Yet, I didn’t feel cheated on this journey. I felt complete at the end.
If you are looking for a light, fast love story, this is definitely not it. This is not a typical love story between a man and a woman. Don't get me wrong, this is definitely a romance, not chick lit, and love and sexual attraction play a huge role in the story. But it is also a deep, heartfelt look at adult life and love, problems and solutions, forgiveness, redemption and absolution. I have never read a contemporary romance that affected me more. Kathryn Shay has never disappointed me, and this one is no exception. I strongly recommend it.