Audiobook Review: This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

Title: This Close to Okay
Author: Leesa Cross-Smith
Narrators: Kamali Minter, Zeno Robinson
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Print length: 311 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the award-winning Southern writer who Roxane Gay calls “a consummate storyteller” comes a cathartic novel about the life-changing weekend shared between two strangers: a therapist and the man she prevents from ending his life.

On a rainy October night in Kentucky, recently divorced therapist Tallie Clark is on her way home from work when she spots a man precariously standing on the side of a bridge. Without a second thought, Tallie pulls over and jumps out of the car into the pouring rain. She convinces the man to join her for a cup of coffee, and he eventually agrees to come back to her house, where he finally shares his name: Emmett.

Over the course of the emotionally charged weekend that follows, Tallie makes it her mission to provide a safe space for Emmett, though she hesitates to confess that this is also her day job. But what she doesn’t realize is that he’s not the only one who needs healing — and she’s not the only one with secrets.

Alternating between Tallie and Emmett’s perspectives as they inch closer to the truth of what brought Emmett to the bridge’s edge — as well as the hard truths Tallie has been grappling with in her own life — This Close to Okay is a vibrant, powerful story of two strangers brought together by wild chance at the moment they needed each other most.

In this moving, surprising, dual-narrator novel, we meet two damaged souls who find solace and hope through their accidental meeting.

When Tallie sees a man poised to jump off a bridge, she immediately tries to intervene, gently using her words and music to encourage him back from the brink, then continuing to provide companionship and support in the hours and days that follow. She doesn’t approach Emmett as a therapist, although she is one — instead, she offers caring and compassion, as well as shelter and a safe space.

Over the course of their time together, each slowly opens up to the other, but at their own pace, and keeping secrets even while sharing hopes, fears, and past hurts. They each also cross boundaries, aware of infringing on the other’s privacy but somehow justifying this through good intentions.

The book shifts point-of-view between Tallie and Emmett, and through their alternating chapters, we learn about the events in their lives that brought them both to this particular moment. Each has been through hurts and suffering, and while Tallie shares the pain of her husband’s betrayal and subsequent divorce, Emmett keeps his past largely to himself, hiding the source of his desperation and suicidal impulses, and even hiding his true identity.

The beauty of This Close to Okay is in getting to know these complex characters and seeing how the different struggles in their lives have contributed to where they are as the story opens. It’s lovely to see their interactions and how they each affect the other in deep and meaningful ways. The story is not action-packed — it’s really about the characters and how they connect, and that’s probably why it resonates on such an emotional level.

Sure, there are some elements that I could quibble with. Tallie takes a huge risk by bringing Emmett into her life and into her home, and it’s hard to believe that a modern woman in this day and age would potentially compromise her own safety in such a dramatic way. Yes, Emmett is trustworthy and respectful and safe, but she really couldn’t have known that up front, could she? Likewise, I have a bone to pick with Tallie’s decision to not share with Emmett that she’s a therapist. She knows that her professional obligation toward an official client would be to refer him for treatment and report an attempted suicide, but she rationalizes that Emmett is not her client as part of her decision to just spend time with him and offer him a place to rest and regroup. She has compassionate impulses, and since this is a novel, it all works out, but looking in from the outside, this feels like a very risky and unprofessional path to take.

The audiobook made for a great listening experience. I appreciated the expressiveness of the two narrators and how they voiced the characters and the more interior moments. I did struggle a bit with the male narrator’s lower vocal register, which made it hard for me to catch all the words clearly, but that may be more about my own hearing than the actual narration!

Overall, I did love This Close to Okay. Despite my disagreement with some of the plot points, I was completely caught up in the story, and felt my heart break over and over again as more is revealed about Emmett’s painful past. I will say as well that I was pleasantly surprised that this book does not fall into the common romantic tropes that pop up so often in contemporary fiction. The characters’ development and well-being is the point, and the plot supports this very well without making romantic entanglement the dominant focus.

Side note: I always love when fictional characters are revealed to share some of my geeky loves… so when Tallie pulls her copy of Prisoner of Azkaban off the shelf to read to Emmett, I just about swooned!

This Close to Okay is a moving story about two sympathetic people, and I truly enjoyed getting to know each of them. By the end, I felt very invested in their lives, and loved how beautifully the author conveyed their journeys.

Highly recommended!

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Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Book Review: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Title: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this next captivating love story from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One Day in December, a young woman is reunited with her late fiancé in a parallel life. But is this happy ending the one she really wants?

Lydia and Freddie. Freddie and Lydia. They’d been together for more than a decade, and Lydia thought their love was indestructible.

But she was wrong. On her twenty-eighth birthday, Freddie died in a car accident.

So now it’s just Lydia, and all she wants to do is hide indoors and sob until her eyes fall out. But Lydia knows that Freddie would want her to try to live fully, happily, even without him. So, enlisting the help of his best friend, Jonah, and her sister, Elle, she takes her first tentative steps into the world, open to life–and perhaps even love–again.

But then something inexplicable happens that gives her another chance at her old life with Freddie. A life where none of the tragic events of the past few months have happened.

Lydia is pulled again and again across the doorway of her past, living two lives, impossibly, at once. But there’s an emotional toll to returning to a world where Freddie, alive, still owns her heart. Because there’s someone in her new life, her real life, who wants her to stay.

Written with Josie Silver’s trademark warmth and wit, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird is a powerful and thrilling love story about the what-ifs that arise at life’s crossroads, and what happens when one woman is given a miraculous chance to answer them.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird starts with tragedy. Driving to Lydia’s birthday dinner, Freddie is in a car accident that takes his life. Lydia’s world is destroyed. She and Freddie, engaged to be married, have been together for over ten years, really ever since meeting as teens. He was her first and only love… and then suddenly, he was gone.

Lydia is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world, and where this book excels is in its depiction of grief and loss. Lydia’s pain is not pretty or dignified — she’s a mess, and she remains a mess for a long, long time. Grief doesn’t have a timetable. There’s no quick fix or set number of months that the mourning should take. Lydia simply has to go through it, and fortunately, she has an incredibly giving and loving sister by her side every step of the way.

Lydia also has a secret: The unusual pink pills that her mother gave her to help her sleep have a decidedly odd effect: When she takes a pill and falls asleep, Lydia is pulled into a different version of her own life, one in which the accident never happened and Freddie is very much alive. Soon, Lydia is torn between her bleak waking world and the promise of escape into a world that she knows can’t be real — but it’s a world where she gets time with Freddie, gets to plan their wedding and enjoy their promised life together.

Thankfully, there’s no hint that this alternate world is a real option for Lydia. Even while experiencing this time with Freddie, she’s fully aware of what’s happened in her real life, so all the happy moments are overshadowed for her by the knowledge that Freddie isn’t really alive in her world.

Meanwhile, we spend much more time with Lydia in her waking life than asleep, which I appreciated. She has no choice but to begin the long, slow road forward without Freddie, finding a way to keep going without the love of her life.

There’s a lot to like about this book:

  • Lydia has a meaningful and rewarding job working in a community center, which hits very close to home for me and really warmed my heart. It’s refreshing to read about someone with a job that’s important but not at all corporate — a job that’s all about creating programming for the community to bring joy to other people.
  • Her mother is odd, but still supportive, and her sister Elle is the absolute best. She and her husband have Lydia’s back, fuss over her a lot, but also give her space to figure out her own life.
  • Unlike some other books I’ve read, at no point does anything negative about Freddie come to light. I’ve read too many versions of stories where the dearly departed turns out to be somewhat of an ass or a liar or in some other way not really worth the tears. Nope, not here. Even though Lydia eventually becomes open to the possibility of love again, there’s never any doubt that had Freddie lived, they would have had a happy life together.

Of course, I had some quibbles as well:

(And I suppose I should say… some of these are a little bit spoilery…)

  • The sci-fi geek in me (never too far below the surface) wants to know what was in those pink pills! Even though Lydia eventually acknowledges that maybe it was the pills and maybe it was just her brain’s way of helping her deal with her loss, my sci-fi brain wanted a real explanation! Was she in an alternate reality? Was it all in her mind? If it was all in her mind, I have to say, it was a very neatly constructed and chronologically sound set of delusions. (I would have preferred either no alternate reality story, or one that actually happens in a fully fleshed out way — again, sci-fi geek here!)
  • When Lydia picks herself up and goes off to Croatia on a moment’s notice, then stays there for nine weeks to rest and recuperate and find herself, I just could not suspend my disbelief. She goes off with no plan, happens to be approached by a cab driver who happens to have a seaside restaurant and room to rent with his wife, who happens to be smart and supportive and exactly what Lydia needs. Really? What are the odds? Because I’m willing to bet that in real life, the tourist showing up at an airport in a foreign country and trusting someone to drive her to a remote place with no hesitation… is maybe not going to return in one piece. Honestly, this piece of the story made no sense to me.
  • I’m really glad that Lydia grew and changed over the course of the book, which covers close to two years in her life — but part of how I was aware of how much she’d changed was by her constantly thinking about how much she’d changed. Um… show, don’t tell?

Quibbles, aside, I did actually enjoy this book very much, and especially appreciated how well the author conveyed Lydia’s suffering and the emotional rollercoaster she experiences during her mourning process.

You don’t get over losing someone you love in six months or two years or twenty, but you do have to find a way to carry on living without feeling as if everything that comes afterward is second best.

Lydia is flawed and human and feels real. She’s miserable and sad until, eventually, she learns to also start feeling happy again, although in a different way than before. I really liked her as a person, and felt that her journey never sugarcoated the pain of her huge loss. At some point, she finds new ways to participate in life, with her family and friends and work, and it’s pretty glorious to see Lydia find hope again after it all seems gone.

I guess I could have lived without the alternate world pieces of the story, but overall, I liked The Two Lives of Lydia Bird very much, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly different take on love and finding meaning in life.