Man, this series: each book is better than the one before. It’s rare that I’ll start a review with a ringing endorsement: I like to keep my reviewing cards up my sleeve. BUT I’m groggy from lack of sleep, thanks to an early work morning after I stayed up reading Loren’s The One You Fight For (Ones Who Got Away #3), weeping into my pillow (and I’m not a narrative cryer: I was indifferent to Bambi), and then staying up even later, thinking about how Loren pulled off the unlikely – again. And this premise is even more unlikely than the first two series books. How do you make a romance possible, believable, and engaging when it’s between the woman who lost her sister in a school shooting, where she might’ve been killed as well and the man whose brother did the killing? There are several sensitive, interesting things Loren did and they have to do with how she layered and built her characters, how she managed to infuse her novel with heartbreak, humour, and tenderness.
Heroine Dr. Taryn Landry has dedicated her career to researching school shootings, their victims, perpetrators, but especially their prevention. She has been as good a daughter as a woman in her thirties can be to still-grieving parents, especially her overprotective, emotionally fragile mother. Heck, Taryn yearns to live in Austin, but maintains a nondescript bungalow blocks from her parents in Long Acre just to be near them. Thanks to the documentary about the Long Acre High shooting that was introduced in Book #1, The Ones Who Got Away, she has, however, reunited with high school friends Liv, Rebecca, and Kincaid. Their girl-friend-banter, support, and love are a thread that runs throughout Taryn’s story and offers Taryn breathing and safe space from her psychology prof career, research, and parents.
When the novel opens, Taryn is in the midst of finally bringing her school violence prevention program before local schoolboards for possible implementation. She burns the midnight oil, has dinner with her parents most evenings, and makes time only for her friends: “She had research, developing her program, and teaching. She barely had time to sleep, much less be recreationally well-rounded.” Until she steps out of character, after an aborted, lacklustre blind date, in the Tipsy Hound, a bar running an open mic night. She gets onstage and sings, beautifully, wholeheartedly and, to her surprise, to the audience’s applause. Her performance brings on memories of her dead sister, Nia, and she runs offstage and loses a shoe. In a delightful Cinderella allusion, the man who calms her panic and returns her shoe is a hunk named Lucas Miller, aka, Shaw Miller, brother of Joseph Miller, one of the two shooters of the Long Acre High Massacre. They both see something familiar, but neither recognizes the other. It was 14 years ago …
Shaw Miller is one of the most heart-breaking heroes I’ve read, memorable in his humility and deep sense of unworthiness. An Olympic gymnastics hopeful when his brother smashed his family and community to shreds, Shaw has lived the past 14 years in self-imposed exile. At first, angry and in need of escaping the constant press attention and then, later, with the belief that a life of drifting, without the joy of friends or family, is his penitential way to ensuring he and his family never hurt anyone, “He deserved the hate … He’d lost the right to roots … he deserved to pay every bit of that steep price.” But Shaw has one loyal, good friend who convinces him to return to Austin, with a new name, and help him run his new gym, “Gym Xtreme”. Shaw agrees, even though it’s a “taste of freedom he wasn’t sure he deserved but that sounded like a dream.” Shaw moves into the building across from the Tipsy Hound and hence, his near-cute meet with Taryn. When Taryn’s friends convince to her to relax and take a gym membership, she and the helpful hunk from the Tipsy Hound meet again … and again … and again.
Yes, there is the terrible realization about who Shaw “Lucas” Miller is and what his brother did. If Loren were a lesser writer, she would’ve gone with the betrayal and given Taryn a lot of screws to turn on Shaw, but she doesn’t. And she could’ve gone with a Shaw more stoic and “manly” instead of vulnerable, emotionally open, and hopeful. Instead, Loren did this and still made her romance funny when it wasn’t heart-breaking and sexy when it wasn’t heart-wrenching. Taryn and Shaw have amazing qualities, but they’re never leached of personality.
Taryn is forgiving, but a truth-teller. Shaw is as loving and giving a hero as I’ve read without being idealized. He has humility. He supports Taryn’s efforts, never lies or covers up, never makes excuses and yet, Loren imbues him with dignity. And maybe that’s what I found so appealing about this final and maybe my favourite of the series, how open, vulnerable, honest, and dignified Taryn and Shaw are. Loren is interested in how a tragedy that rends a community and so many relationships can find a way to heal by listing on the side of understanding, listening, and plain old putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you read one contemporary romance series, unlikely, difficult, and painful as the premise is, make it Loren’s. With Miss Austen, we say that The One You Fight For proves “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Roni Loren’s The One You Fight For is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released on January 1st and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca, via Netgalley.