REVIEW: In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson
Historian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region’s quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life–and about her husband’s death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think.
Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time and the lost loves that haunt us all.
Dear Julie Christine Johnson,
You might want to look away now. Really. This is not going to be pretty. Also; spoilers ahoy.
I first heard about In Another Life on a DBSA podcast where Sarah Wendell interviewed Susanna Kearsley. (Susanna is one of my beloved and autobuy authors. She talked about the book as one her publisher had sent to her to read and that she had started, but had not yet finished. I want to make it crystal clear, my opinion of the book, in no way reflects any opinion on Ms. Kearsley. Did I mention I adore her and her books?)
This is the tweet I posted immediately after I’d finished the book in response to a friend’s query on whether I liked it.
Ms. Kearsley said it was a time-slip/reincarnation book and what I heard about it looked like it might be just my thing. So I looked it up on Goodreads to confirm and then I requested the book for review. Nothing about the blurb prepared me for the non-HEA ending.
Perhaps it was just mischance that I heard about the book on a romance podcast, read the blurb and put 2 + 2 together to reach HEA. To be fair, the book is not categorised at Amazon as romance. So there’s that.
In any event, I thought it was a romance and that was what I was expecting right up until the last page when it became glaringly apparent it was NOT. I thought I had about 15 pages to go but rather than the HEA I was seeking, it was book club questions and an Author Q&A. I even scrolled through every one of those pages in case there was a formatting glitch and the end of the book was in the wrong place. I thought I was getting a book somewhat like Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden (a book which was much better on every level actually). I did not.
I’m a romance reader. I read for the HEA. Unless I’m reading non-fiction, I’m looking for a happy payoff in whatever I read, even outside of romance. If I read a crime thriller and the book ends with the crime unsolved and the villain uncaught, I’m going to want to throw it against the wall. With romance (or, what I expect will be romance), if I don’t get my HEA, I want to set the book on fire. Just so we’re clear.
So. My biggest single issue with the book was the craptastic ending. Lia starts off the story as a grieving widow, just starting to be open to loving again. She falls in love and hey look, she gets shat on by life AGAIN. The End. I’m not even joking.
I haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife. I saw the movie and I thought it was rubbish. I haven’t read Me Before You. I won’t see the film. For readers who like The Time Traveller’s Wife and Me Before You and who are not as welded to a HEA as me, then maybe this book will work for you.
With that in mind, I will try and give those readers some idea of what they might find and whether it might work for them. This is me being fair, even while I am rocking in the corner because no HEA and WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? WHY????
There is a mystery aspect to the story and that mystery is solved. So it’s not like everything is left up in the air. Things happen and resolution is gained.
It’s just that the resolution made me want to stab myself.
Okay, so, Lia Carrer’s husband, Gabriel, a professional mountain bike racer, died during a race in Limoux, France. He had veered off the mountain trail for unknown reasons and, when he crossed over a highway (which had been closed for the race and was supposed to have been clear), he was apparently struck by a black Mercedes. He died as a result. (The black Mercedes was never located and the police are about to close their fruitless investigation.) Lia is heartbroken. She and Gabriel had a happy marriage and her whole life falls apart at this sudden and tragic loss.
It has been 18 months since the accident and Lia doesn’t really feel she’s moved on. Her work, as an adjunct professor of European and medieval history at a Seattle university has slipped and she had been advised her contract would not be renewed. Her dissertation on the Cathar people of Languedoc in France and the genocidal Cathar Crusade by the Catholic Church which led to their eradication, has stalled. She decides to go back to France, to her close friend Rose and Rose’s husband, Domenec, to see if she can finish her dissertation, lay some ghosts to rest and find peace.
Lia was raised in Somalia by her physician parents. Her mother was French and her father was Italian. When they were killed, adolescent Lia was sent to her mother’s relatives in Limoux. Lia met her best friend, Rose, a native of New Orleans, when they were both at college in the US together. Rose married Domenec, a Languedoc winemaker and now makes her home in Minerve in south eastern France. They have a bed and breakfast “Le Pelerin” (peregrine falcon or pilgrim, depending upon the chosen translation), which they have given over for Lia’s use for as long as she wishes.
Minerve is in the heart of Languedoc, the region of south eastern France populated by the Cathars in the 13th Century. They were regarded as heretics by the Catholic Church (for one thing they didn’t tithe to the church). They also believed in reincarnation.
Lia is particularly interested in the murder of Catholic Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau.
“He was murdered in January 1208,” she said. “In the midst of mediating a land dispute between Raymond VI, the Count of Toulouse, and Hugh de Baux, the Viscount of Marseilles. History has it that Castelnau was ambushed on his way to parley with the viscount, supposedly by a mercenary of Toulouse’s.”
De Castelnau’s death, rightly or wrongly, was blamed on the Count of Toulouse and thereafter, the Catholic Church declared a crusade against the Cathars. Knights Templar swept across Languedoc, murdering Cathars, burning homes and churches, killing women and children. As a result, Languedoc became assimilated into France instead of being regarded as a separate territory/disputed territory.
The murder is at the heart of the mystery of the book. Lia believes Toulouse was falsely accused of de Castelnau’s death; that the murder was actually undertaken at the order of Philippe du Plessis the leader of the Knights Templar in the region. Thus, the Church had a reason to declare a crusade and get rid of those pesky Cathars. If she is able to prove it, she can rewrite the history books.
Lia is in contact with an archivist priest, Jordi Bonafe, who gives her a line on some documents which may assist her. She also meets Lucas Moisset (aka Lucas Mauleon), a photographer who happened to be in the Limoux region taking pictures of the race around the time of Gabriel’s death. Lucas invites her to collaborate with him on a coffee table book about the Cathar ruins of the region. He will provide the photographs, she will provide the text. The third man of the “three men are trapped in time” of the book’s tagline, is Raoul Arango (known in 1208 as Raoul D’Aran).
The story switches between the present day storyline of Lia’s investigation of the death of de Castelnau and her relationships with the three men as she slowly starts to see a life after Gabriel, and 1208. the 1208 section begins with the death of de Castelnau at the hands of Lucas Mauleon, who is a member of the Knights Templar. Raoul D’Aran is a native of Catalunya (this is how it is spelled in the book), a winemaker, married to his beloved Paloma. Paloma and he have two very young children, twins; a boy and a girl. Raoul has adopted the Cathar ways and wishes to protect his adoptive people and his beloved home from the ravages of the Knights Templar. Jordi Bonafe, at the time a young priest, witnesses the murder. In return for sparing his life, he is left indebted to and a pawn for Mauleon.
When Raoul Arango first encounters Lia, he mistakes her for Paloma. There are similarities in certain parts of Lia’s history and Paloma’s history. Raoul Arango “awoke and was” about the time Gabriel died. He clearly knew how to operate in the present day world but his memories were all of the 13th Century. How this was so was never explained. It is one of the flaws of the book and just one of the things that didn’t make sense to me.
Jordi has aged significantly since 1208. Lucas and Raoul look about the same. But they, all three, died in 1208/09. How this was was also not explained. I’m a bit vague on exactly what each man has been doing in the intervening time. The mythology of the book was insufficient and inconsistent and there were gaping holes in it. While I don’t believe in time travel/time slip/reincarnation in real life, I can accept it for the purposes of a book but only if there is an internal consistency to the worldbuilding and some kind of sensible (at least insofar as the world of the book is concerned) explanation for it.
There is also a section where Lia apparently travels in time. The exact when and where of this time slip is undefined. I could say a lot more about this but I have already given away the ending so perhaps I should stop here. I could probably write a post all on it’s own about how I didn’t understand the time slip and how the non-HEA actually made it make LESS sense to me. (I’d really like someone to read the book and explain to me how it works because I couldn’t get my head around it at all.)
Lia senses a deep connection somehow to both Lucas and Raoul. I was led by this and other things, to believe that Lia was Paloma at one time. I thought Gabriel and Raoul might have some connection. That’s the way it was pointing but I struggled to work out the how of it.
Lia and Raoul fall in love as if recognising Paloma and Gabriel in the other (the Gabriel connection is far more subtle however). There is really no other explanation given for it. There was no courtship per se. No developing relationship. It just was. If Lia is not Paloma and Raoul is not Gabriel then what on earth caused them to fall in love?
I could have gone with it (maybe) if there’d been a HEA. I’d still have been disappointed but the book was shaping up to about a B- for me because there were other things (such as the language) I was really enjoying. Sure, there were things I didn’t understand, the supernatural aspects of the worldbuilding were amorphous and vague, the time slip was o-0 but there was a definite romance to the book. I believed, right up until the last page, that there would be a HEA. I really did.
The book has a rich sense of place and my feeling was that the history was accurate and well researched. Some of the writing was beautiful. The descriptions were rich and vivid.
The iron gate shifted with the wind as it bounced open and shut against the latch, the bar vibrating in laughter at a private, sinister joke.
There is a denseness to the text and a deep layer of description which makes the book one which needs a close read. Which is fine in and of itself. The story itself plays out over a period of months, with Lia being in Languedoc for quite a while by the end of the story. In some ways it was a like slow food. Lots to appreciate but it takes time. It is not quick or easy. There were times in the book where I was gripped and tense, wondering what would come next.
In fact, there were times I was frustrated by the slow doling out of information and the sudden breaks in the informational flow. That seems like a deliberate authorial choice which didn’t always pay off for me; sometimes when this happened, the text didn’t support the action. It seemed to me it was the dictates of the plot/story arc intruding on the characters rather than anything organic.
I know as a reader, I am not the best at subtle. There may well have been hints as to the reincarnation/time slip that I missed and/or that went over my head. Other readers may not have this problem.
If I’d gained a HEA at the end, I’d still have said the book was worth my time however. As it was…
Grade: D. But only because Dear Author doesn’t have a grade “set it on fire”.