>> Thursday, January 29, 2015
Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.
Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.
When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.
Annie Goodhouse is a relatively new librarian, only just settling into a new job in a new town, far away from home. The book is set, as far as I can tell, in the same decaying Michigan town as my favourite McKenna, After Hours, while Annie is originally from the South (one of the Carolinas, IIRC). Everything's different, and her new role as an outreach librarian doesn't make it any easier to settle in. That's because on Fridays the population she will be reaching out to is that living in the Cousins Correctional Facility.
Annie is initially very nervous about dealing with the inmates, but as she starts to know them and work with them, she starts feeling a bit less tense. The exception is one of them, Eric Collier. Annie has felt drawn to him right from the beginning, and familiarity doesn't really diminish the electricity of that connection. Because right from the start, Annie and Eric have began a very secret, very intimate and very forbidden correspondence.
And then Eric is given early parole, and he and Annie must figure out whether what they built through letters means something more than just words.
When I read the description of this book, that it was about an outreach librarian who started falling in love with a convict through letters, I kind of assumed automatically that it would be a correspondence that would only gradually become more personal and then more intimate. I pictured he would start writing about, say, his life and his views (maybe as a class assignment, or something), and after a while, this would turn into love letters.
This wasn’t the case. On Annie’s very first visit, Eric ‘writes’ her a letter under the guise of asking her for help writing to someone else. “Darling”, it starts, and there’s some mild sexual content. And the very next time she comes to the prison, he hands her a letter where the sexual content is quite high. He gives her the option to signal him to stop or continue, and, after some soul-searching, Annie goes for telling him to continue.
And that just felt wrong to me. I didn’t quite buy that Annie would have been ok with that, no matter how sexy she’d found him. Her acceptance of this showed a lack of judgment on her part, which she admits, but more extreme than I was willing to accept as a reader. Furthermore, I felt it was stupidly naive of her to take Eric's letter personally. What I mean is: this is a guy who hasn’t had any intimacy with a woman in 5 years and who’s latching on to the first pretty woman he has access to. It felt stupid of Annie to read anything more into it, at least at the beginning (even though it turns out she was right to do so!).
Those early letters...she and Eric don’t know each other at all when they start writing this really intimate stuff, so how is this intimacy meaningful? At the beginning, it feels more like two people writing out their fantasies. I really think this would have worked much, much better if things had been more gradual, if there had been a degree of mutual knowledge before things got intimate. Oh, the letters themselves are quite touching and sexy, it's just that they would have worked better in that different situation. And yes, this is basically me dinging McKenna for not writing the book as I would have liked it to be written. It's just that this initial setup just required stretching my suspension of disbelief way more than it could go, and it would have been so easy to write this same premise in a way that made it more believable!
The second half worked A LOT better for me. It's a really interesting conflict when Eric unexpectedly comes out. He and Annie have built something in their letters, but they can’t just pick up where they left off when Eric is out, not when for Annie, part of the appeal of her correspondence with Eric was the safety of knowing nothing could come of it. They must explore how this relationship can translate into… not a ‘real’ one (as Eric says, that was his reality when they were writing), but one with both of them outside and unrestricted.
And it's not just adapting to physical contact being a possibility. Annie has a big issue with Eric’s view of what he did that got him sent to prison. He still feels he did what he had to do, punishing the man who hurt his sister (and neither we nor Annie know the details there, as Eric’s sister doesn’t want to share them). Annie doesn’t have a problem with that so much, but with the fact that Eric feels he would have to do the same again in similar circumstances, even if it’d have disastrous consequences to himself (and by extension, to the woman who’s contemplating being his long-term partner). The interesting thing is that this showcases a very different world-view between Eric and Annie, one that, as I was reading, I thought might well be a valid reason why the relationship shouldn’t go anywhere. In romance, 99.9% of the times I think of any internal conflict “of course you can get over this!!”. I wasn’t so sure here, which was interesting.
McKenna resolves this in a way that was satisfactory to me, but didn't stretch either too far from their original world-view. It's a good ending, and I liked seeing Annie begin to build a relationship with Eric's family, even though they come from very different backgrounds. However, I really would have liked to see how Annie’s family dealt with Eric, too. Annie's father is in law enforcement, so it's going to be much more of a stretch for him to accept an ex-con as a brother-in-law than it was for Eric's family to accept a comparatively posh woman as a partner for him.
This wasn't my favourite book by this author, mainly because my difficulty buying the circumstances of the start of the relationship. Apart from that, though, I enjoyed it. I particularly like how McKenna has regular working-class people as characters and how they live in regular working-class places. Those places are shown, warts and all, but without being used as plot points to, say, create danger for the protagonists. In a genre where aspirational fantasy seems to get more and more dominant (Billionaires! Pro athletes! Billionaire pro athletes!), I really appreciate McKenna's style.
MY GRADE: A B.