Book Review: Until We Meet Again

Until We Meet AgainAn upper class seaside retreat is the setting for this YA timeslip novel by Renee Collins. Main character Cassandra, age 17, is spending the summer with her mother, stepfather, and 3-year-old brother at a rented beachfront mansion, and she’s bored to tears. Until one day, she wanders down the path between the property’s bushes and ends up on the private beach, where she meets a (very attractive) young man named Lawrence.

The first meeting is full of suspicion: What are you doing on my family’s private beach? No, what are YOU doing on MY family’s private beach??!! But within the first couple of meetings, it becomes clear: The beach seems to be a place that’s shared by both Cassandra’s world in 2015 and Lawrence’s world… in 1925. Apparently, no one in either time seems to like the beach much, because while anyone can reach it, it’s mostly just Cassandra and Lawrence there, undisturbed for hours and days at a time.

The two connect, quickly, and soon come to realize their deep feelings for one another. But trouble looms: Lawrence is the summer guest of his wealthy uncle Ned, who plans for Lawrence to go to Harvard and then law school, then enter the family business. Ned also seems to be pushing a pretty flapper named Fay at Lawrence, and is quite insistent that Lawrence get involved with her. Something seems shady, all right — and when Cassandra hits the library microfiche to see what she can find out about Lawrence and his family, she stumbles upon a shocking news article, which reveals that Lawrence will be murdered on the beach in only a few weeks. Cassandra vows that she’ll find a way to stop it, and between her modern-day research and Lawrence’s snooping in his own time, the two race the clock to save his life… and hope to find a way to be together afterward.

The novel leaves the timeslip element mostly unexplained, although Cassandra agonizes over whether she can or should influence the events of 1925, for fear that the consequences will be devastating. And yet, she plunges right ahead once she realizes Lawrence’s life is on the line.

In terms of plot, there are pros and cons. Pro-wise, the concept of the beach as a portal between the times is interesting. It’s not that either Lawrence or Cassandra has a special ability, but rather, it’s the place that’s powerful. Anyone who passes through the bushes onto the beach can see whoever’s there, from either time — so the beach isn’t some sort of special protected bubble, it’s just that very few people actually go there and so no one else has discovered the odd time disconnect. Also strong is the portrayal of Cassandra as a girl ready for something to happen, throwing herself headfirst into a crazy, emotion-fueled adventure that really should be beyond her belief. I liked the sense of Cassandra’s drive and devotion, and how determined she became to do whatever she needed to do.

In the middle ground for me are the 1920s-era standards — flappers, mobsters, crooked businessmen, hints of Prohibition-defying smuggling. I suppose this may be newer in the realm of young adult fiction, but lately it seems to be done almost to death. While Lawrence’s side of the story is interesting, it’s a pretty surface-level glide through that world, and I didn’t feel that it really explored the setting in a deep enough way.

I could also go either way on the insta-love aspect of the story. Cassandra and Lawrence seem to fall head over heels in love from one moment to the next, but I know that mainly because I was told that’s how they felt, not because I saw it developing organically. Still, I do give the author some credit on this issue, because a teen romance in an exotic setting really could convincingly blossom from casual acquaintance to love-of-my-life status, given a dramatic or extreme enough set of circumstances.

Pieces that didn’t really work for me related to Cassie’s family life. I didn’t get her mother’s issues with Cassandra: She seemed to always be suspicious, very demanding of Cassandra’s time, and then, weirdly, pretty insistent on Cassandra dating some random boy. Why would she be pushing her to date this guy? It just didn’t make sense to me. Cassandra also had this habit of lying about her trips to the beach by announcing she was going running, but half the time she seemed to be in a sundress when she said this, so again, a little hard to believe.

Still, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the book as a whole. Once the race-against-the-clock element merges with the intense love story, the plot begins zooming forward, and has a great sense of drama that gives a high-stakes feel to the whole thing.

In a way, this book is a metaphor for the quintessential summer romance. Two teens, dragged by their families to a summer vacation spot, meet and fall in love, but have the awful end-of-summer separation looming over them, giving the romance a super-heightened sense of intensity and passion. They’re from two different worlds, their time together is brief, and not being adults yet, they don’t have the control over their futures or lives to prolong the relationship beyond the summer. Take out the timeslip element, and that’s what we have here: Cassandra and Lawrence are flung into each other’s lives because they just happen to have been brought to the same place; they immediately fall in love, but they know they’ll be forced apart when the vacation ends. How glorious for teens in that extra-dramatic period of life, to get the star-crossed lovers experience!

Until We Meet Again combines the best elements of a summer romance with the dramatic build-up of a tragic, doomed love story. In some ways, the ending of the story reminded me of one of my very favorite Doctor Who episodes… although I won’t go into spoiler territory by saying which one. While some pieces of the plot rang a little hollow for me, overall I’d say that Until We Meet Again is an exciting, engaging, quick read that’s worth checking out. And while the timeslip plotline felt a bit thinly developed in places, I also need to recognize that I’m an adult who’s read a LOT of timey-wimey fiction over the years, and for a reader in the target young adult audience, this may be a first encounter with the concept of time travel and its consequences — which could make it a really new and exciting reading experience.

On a final note, this was a very fun read for a chilly week in November! There’s nothing like reading about sunny beach days to chase the cold away.

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The details:

Title: Until We Meet Again
Author: Renee Collins
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Mariana

Book Review: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

The newest cover. My favorite.

Julia Beckett is an independent woman of 30, living in London and succeeding professionally as an illustrator of children’s books. Since childhood, Julia has felt a strange calling to a house in the rural English town of Exbury, and when she happens to pass by the house once again as an adult, fate intervenes. The house is for sale, Julia’s recent inheritance means that she has the wherewithal to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and voila! Julia is now the owner of the lovely but mysterious Greywethers.

Uprooting her London life, Julia settles in and is immediately welcomed by the locals, especially the friendly pub owner Vivien, the lord of the nearby manor, Geoffrey de Mornay, and Geoff’s best friend Iain. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Julia begins to see a dark man on a gray horse at the edges of her property, and that’s just the beginning of strange occurrences.

Soon, Julia begins to have momentary lapses in which she slips through time.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of sliding backwards in time, of exchanging one reality for another that is just as real, just as tangible, just as familiar. I should not, perhaps, refer to it as “sliding,” since in actual fact I was thrust — abruptly and without warning — from one time to the next, as though I had walked through some shifting, invisible portal dividing the present from the past.

When she enters this alternate world, it is as a young woman named Mariana, and the time is the mid-17th century.  As Mariana, Julia relives key events from the other woman’s life, and during those spells knows no other reality – she is, in fact, Mariana. When she returns to herself, Julia remembers what she has experienced as Mariana, but cannot understand why she slips into the past or how these episodes are relevant to her own life.

With the help of her brother Tom, Julia comes to believe that she is Mariana reincarnated, destined for some as-yet-undiscovered purpose related to Mariana’s life. As Julia digs deeper, she comes to understand the love and sorrows that Mariana experienced, and must find a way to live in the present when the past holds so much that tempts her.

I’ll just come right out and say that I love the writing in Mariana. Lush and romantic, Susanna Kearsley’s writing captures the small moments and glances that build to deeper connections and passions. Rustic village life is conveyed in all its quaint charm, and yet the 1600s version of the same village is dark and mistrustful, full of superstition, plotting, and deception. As Julia explores the town, I could practically see the gardens and streams come to life, and would have liked nothing more than to wander the country lanes with her and explore the old manor house and its magnificent library.

As I read Mariana, I became enthralled by the mystery of Mariana’s past and how it could possibly intersect with Julia’s present. The alternating timeframes were so engaging that I never wanted either one to end. By the end of the book, I was completely hooked on the central romance and (without giving anything away here) felt keenly Mariana’s joys and sorrows.

My only quibble with the book is that Julia and Tom arrive at an explanation for Julia’s time slips almost immediately, never question their explanation, and indeed are proven correct pretty much off the bat, with no alternate theories or trial and error. I understand that investigating the cause of the timeslips isn’t really the point here, but it felt a bit too neat to me.

Other than that, there isn’t much that I would change about Mariana. The pace is lively, but with enough suspense and dramatic timing to keep me coming back for more. There’s a sense of impending tragedy – something must have happened to cause Mariana to need to come back across the centuries to find resolution and peace. I especially loved the main plot twist that occurs in Mariana – but again, not wanting to enter spoiler territory, I won’t say what the twist is or when it occurs.

Mariana was first published in 1994 and has been reissued several times since. Call me shallow, but what originally drew me to Susanna Kearsley’s books was the newest set of covers. I was hooked as soon as I saw The Winter Sea on a bookstore shelf, had to have it, and have since snapped up several others. Although Mariana has had several covers since its original publication, the current cover, with its sense of sensual, moody introspection, is the one that really captures the feel of the book for me.

Really, how could you not fall in love with these covers?

I’ve read two other Susanna Kearsley books, The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. Each involves some sort of time displacement or time slippage, each for difference reasons or using different mechanisms. In all three books, the heroine experiences something inexplicable in which she is thrust into another life or another timeline; she must figure out why it happens and what is expected of her. And of course, in each of the three books, true love – a deep, abiding love that knows no boundaries of time – is at the center of the plot. The romances at the heart of the author’s writings are desperate, lovely, dangerous affairs, and the passion is palpable.

What I also appreciate and enjoy in these books is the historical element. Without feeling like a history lesson, these books manage to convey a time and place gone by. They present the drama of the day’s events, politics, and social structures in a way that feels current and vibrant, with special emphasis on the role of women in these times and the choices (or lack of choices) available to them.

Mariana is a fine example of this type of journey to the past, combined with a contemporary woman’s search for identity and meaning, and as such, is both engaging as fiction and emotionally compelling as well.

I highly recommend Mariana to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, love stories, strong female characters… and simply gorgeous English countryside. An appreciation for dashing men on horseback wouldn’t hurt either.

I have another Susanna Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses, all queued up and ready to go on my e-reader. As soon as I get over the emotional ups and downs of Mariana, I’ll be ready to dive right in.