Uncertain and with trepidation, I picked up Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away. After watching the news reports about Margery Stoneman Douglas HS and its mass-shooting aftermath, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a romance with this premise. But I ploughed ahead and read it because I thought: dammit, is that a niggling doubt that the genre can’t, shouldn’t, would botch, a premise so raw and horrific? Can romance do the subject justice? That little snooty inner judgement said “No, spinster-girl, you’re giving this genre a chance to tell this story.” What I discovered is that Loren got some things right and others, wrong. What Loren got right was situating the story twelve years after the school shooting. While her protagonists’ lives were marked by their experience, the initial horror/trauma has dulled. They have built lives as best they can, found some peace, but the shooting has dictated to them too. The time lapse gives Loren some romance narrative wiggle-room: her hero and heroine are adults focussed on adult things, working, paying their bills, being responsible citizens. They achieved this by leaving their Texas town and what happened at Long Acre High.
When the novel opens, however, Special FBI Agent Finn Dorsey and Olivia “Liv” Arias are home, having agreed to be interviewed for a retrospective documentary about the shooting, filming in their former high school. There is nothing “cute” about their meet, yet there is still a glimmer of joy at seeing each other, a recognition of what they meant to each other, but the years, ah, the years … “Finn Dorsey had become a man. And a stranger” and ” … she could tell the moment he realized who she was. Something flickered over his face.” and ” … all they were to each other now were bad memories and even worse decisions.”
Finn and Liv share a beautiful and terrible history. They were friends and almost-lovers, close, intimate, and raging with teenage desire. But Finn was on the golden side of the tracks and Liv was on its garbage-dump. Olivia was Finn’s best-kept secret after his father threatened to take away his college fund if he kept seeing her. On her part, Liv was wild, eccentric, creative, smart, and headed as far from small-minded-small-town-Texas as she could get. As much as teens could be in love, Finn and Liv were. Then, the shooting, and they spiraled away from each other like spaceships in orbit. Now they’re back, though, all those feelings and desires, mixed with guilt and shame, resurface. As a romance, Finn and Liv worked for me; as a study of how some people may react to being in a school shooting, Loren achieves “I’ll-buy-ability”; as an examination of a mass-school-shooting’s provenance, nope, didn’t work.
I think Loren’s strategy to make Finn and Liv’s initial encounters fraught worked. Twelve years is a long time and they’re strangers to each other … and yet not. The “not”, memory’s onslaught, and the liking and compatibility they still feel thaws their sudden meeting’s strangeness. I loved this moment: ” … she was seeing the guy he used to be. And he was seeing the girl he used to know. This was a grab at the past … ” Famous last words. Finn and Liv have hurt, but also love in their past, friendship and liking and attraction. They also share a sense of humour and I loved their responses to a post-interview-hotel-veranda kissing-encounter: ” ‘It’s good that we were interrupted.’ ‘Yeah.’ She smirked and pushed away from the railing. ‘Saved you from my drunken mauling.’ Finn sniffed. ‘Saved you from mine.’ ” One of the most important and attractive authorly accomplishments is how Loren makes the hero and heroine’s verbal-sparring, as well as tenderness, equal, equally witty, equally likeable, equally smart.
Woven into Finn and Liv’s confusing feelings and sizzling attraction are the existential questions returning to the scene of the shooting bring up. First to experience the niggling doubts about the life she forged is Liv: “She’d survived when so many others at Long Acre hadn’t gotten that luxury, and this was what she was doing with her life. Doing a job she sort of liked, living in an apartment she’d never decorated, and just … marking time … She was lost. She didn’t know who she was anymore.” Of the two, Liv is the braver one, though it’s Finn who’ll put his life on the line daily to protect others. Liv listens to the questions and acts on the answers: she makes changes and she acknowledges her love for Finn.
Finn is a caring, giving man, but his life has been a mission of repentance for having survived, for having behaved in a way, that is, on the day of the shooting, that didn’t measure up with his notion of heroism. Putting his life on the life is a kind of bad faith in the end: always leaving on mission, telling Liv he doesn’t deserve happiness, or love, even as he admits his love for Liv. Like Liv, there’s a crisis of identity there, but the resignation, so much less attractive: ” … what was the point? In a few months, he’d be back on assignment. A ghost again. He didn’t know how to be anything else anymore.” I must say how much I loved Liv and Finn’s honesty: ” ‘I love you. And you will leave. And I will be okay.’ He put his lips to her ear. ‘I love you back. Guess we’re both screwed.’ Her eyes popped open, the words sparking through her like lightning.” This takes place about two-thirds in, so there’s a lot of working out to do, but I’m awfully glad Loren was good enough not to make it that boring push-pull of internal love avowals with external silence, internal love suffering with external seeming indifference.
The part of the romance that didn’t work for me is bound up with Finn’s FBI role, as a man in pursuit of the shooters’ guns’ origins. Without spoiler-indulgence, let me say that this is the “romantic suspense” part of the novel that didn’t ask the big, important questions about gun proliferation and control. And maybe there’s no room for it in a story that is first and foremost about Finn and Liv healing the past, acknowledging their love, and agreeing to a future together. Aside from this failure, Finn’s journey to love and commitment is wildly and beautifully romantic: I loved it.
In light of the gun control debate and recent one-of-many mass shootings, I’m not sure Loren’s novel did it all justice; maybe, it couldn’t. I don’t hold it against the novel and I’d urge you not to either, but to read The Ones Who Got Away. With Miss Austen, here’s a novel that says herein is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released on January 2nd and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca, via Netgalley.