REVIEW: Unforgiven by Anne Calhoun
Dear Ms. Calhoun:
I’ve liked your erotica–your novella Breath on Embers was on my top ten list for 2012–and was excited to see you’re venturing into the realm of contemporary romance with your latest novel, Unforgiven. As you say on your website,
If you’ve ever read one of my books and thought, “Boy, I wish these two would stop having so much hot sex and do stuff together, like deal with terrible mistakes and broken dreams and find their way to an emotionally satisfying new life together” this is the book for you!
Your summary of Unforgiven is apt. It is a story of two people both of whom have stunted lives, limited by choices they made years ago. Unforgiven is a somber book, similar in tone to Breath on Embers. Marissa and Adam are damaged characters who have spent their adult lives internalizing their pain and denying themselves happiness. The book is, at times depressing, but the sadness that infuses Marissa’s and Adam’s lives makes the joy the two experience in the end rich and satisfying.
Adam Collins and Marissa Brooks grew up in the small town of Walker’s Ford, South Dakota. It’s a place where the sun rarely shines, where not only does everyone know your name, they know you and judge you with the familiarity that comes with consistent forced closeness.
When Adam and Marissa were seventeen they were in love and Adam was young, reckless and wild. (Now I’ve got Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” in my head.) Every chance they could get, they fooled around, doing everything but having intercourse. (It’s the one thing Adam thinks is too risky to chance.) Other than each other, they each dreamed of one thing. Adam lived for speed, for riding his Hayabusa motorcycle, going ninety miles an hour on eastern South Dakota’s backroads, dreaming of a career on the racing circuit. Marissa dreamed of owning and restoring Brookhaven, the mansion her family owned for decades and lost when she was a child.
Adam smashed both of their dreams one night when he was beyond reckless and the next day, he joined the Marines. Twelve years later, he returns to Walker’s Ford, having left the Corps. On the night he returns, he walks in the door of a gorgeous, and almost fully restored (and owned by Marissa) Brookhaven, where a party is being held to celebrate the impending wedding of Adam’s best friend, Keith, and Delaney. It seems as though all of Walker’s Ford is there and they are shocked to see Adam in large part because, until eight months ago, Delaney had been engaged to marry Adam.
From the moment Adam walks into Brookhaven, he is drawn to Marissa like the proverbial moth. Within an hour, the two are having sex in the pantry. For both, the other is the one that got away and now that Adam’s returned to town, the attraction that burned between them as teenagers flares up again.
Despite the hot sex and their intense connection Marissa doesn’t want to take up again with Adam. She’s sure he will abandon the plans he has to go to the nearby university to study architecture and will once again leave Walker’s Ford. Adam’s leaving her twelve years ago broke her heart and she’s determined not to risk that again. The irony is that Adam is here to stay; it’s Marissa who longs to leave Walker’s Ford. She obsessively dreams about sailing around the world although she’s never left her land-locked state.
There’s much to like about this book. The focus here is firmly on Marissa and Adam; each scene deepens the reader’s understanding of their personas and their demons. The writing is excellent. Ms. Calhoun conjures up a gloomy, claustrophobic town where nature and man make life a struggle. Ms. Calhoun’s love scenes are superb; the sex is deeply erotic and emotional. Everything that happens in this book feels real. The plot, which spools out slowly, is engrossing. Each chapter reveals more about the past and the present. Ms. Calhoun’s characters are so defined by their pasts, it takes enormous effort for them to change, to trade oppressive expectations for self-defined lives. Adam and Marissa have to allow themselves to fall in love, to feel as though they deserve joy. Their journey isn’t easy. I read the novel during a stressful few days in my life and, at times, found Unforgiven a challenge to stay with simply because the issues it explores are done so with palpable power. Since I finished it, I’ve read it again and found more joy in the prose than I did my first go-round. Unforgiven is a rewarding read but not a light one.
I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. Not because it wasn’t an easy read but because Adam and Marissa are so emotionally locked down, I found it hard to connect with them. I was interested in what happened to them but felt more removed from their story than I’d have liked. I also found some of the plot lines a bit baffling. I never really understood why Adam and Marissa never made love as teenagers or why Adam behaved so destructively in Brookhaven on the night everything went to hell. And I was distressed by, although completely believed, the town’s labeling Marissa as a semi-slut simply because she’d slept with several men.
Overall, Unforgiven is worth reading and I’m glad I did so. At its end, Ms. Calhoun encloses an excerpt of her next contemporary, Jaded, also set in Walker’s Ford, which I definitely want to read.
Unforgiven gets a B+ from me.