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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.

Unforgiven by Anne CalhounDespite 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.




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I loved romances when, back in the mid 70's, in junior high, I read every Barbara Cartland novel I could check out from the library. Then, thanks to a savvy babysitter, I got my hands on the hot stuff. To this day I can remember how astonishingly steamy I found Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. I abandoned romance when I went to college and didn't pick one up again until 2007 when I got my first Kindle. Since then, I’ve read countless romances; loved many, liked more, hated some. Most of what I read is historical and contemporary romance, but I’m open to almost any genre. I like my books to have sizzle, wit, and plots that make sense. I’d take sexy over sweet any day. I’m a sucker for smart heroes and smart-mouthed heroines. When not reading or writing about reading, or wishing I could rule the world, I'm meddling in the lives of my kids--I have four, ages 17 to 21--, managing my husband's practice, doing bossy volunteer work, and hanging out with Dr. Feelgood.


  1. Kati
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 12:55:17

    I have no idea why I haven’t read this one. I have it. Just haven’t gotten to it. Thank you for the push and the reminder, Dabney. I do adore Anne’s writing. She’s not afraid to go there in romance, and that’s really quite rare. Plus, I loves me some romangst, and this fits the bill perfectly.

  2. Molly O'Keefe
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 13:45:54

    I just finished this one recently and I haven’t totally pinned down all my thoughts about it. Marissa made the book for me – her attitude toward sex and her reputation was really intriguing. It also felt like a reverse small town contemporary – that’s not quite the right word, but it had so many of the small town contemporary features – but darker, or turned on their head. Not that the town was bad – it just wasn’t roses all the time. I liked that quite a bit too. Especially as a person who goes home to her very small town and can’t get a cup of decent coffee – that was very real :)

  3. Deljah
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 13:49:10

    How was Adam engaged to Delaney up until 8 months ago, if he hadn’t been in town in 12 years? I’m not following that part.

  4. Dabney
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 14:05:37

    @Deljah: He came home on leave, but mostly they had a Skype relationship. The met when she was in college and he was on leave. I didn’t mean to imply he hadn’t been home for twelve years, but rather that he hadn’t been home to stay.

  5. Deljah
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 14:07:58


    Thanks for clearing that up for me!

  6. Arethusa
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 16:15:05

    I loved it. I had similar confusion as to why Adam acted so recklessly that one night but it wasn’t much of an impediment to my enjoyment.

    The small town setting was such an antidote to the perfect La La lands settings I see so much these days, complete with well-supported shelters and fun coney island parks and blah blah. I was as invested in the characters own self-developments as I was in their relationships. I found their stories emotionally gripping and, I gotta tell ya, I cried with Adam as he made his final breakthrough. (I can be a wuss though lol. I cried when Mufasa died in The Lion King.)

    The sub-plot with his ex-fiance was also a doozy! The tension among the players was obvious but the twist was shocking yet satisfying. I think that was a defining feature of the book for me: how satisfying I found the all of the resolutions. It was something I associate more with reading suspense or paranormals.

    Calhoun is a treasure.

  7. Victoria Paige
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 22:54:45

    I’m halfway reading this book, I was intrigued by your review, did my 1-click and was reading it most of the night. You were spot on, there was something melancholy about the writing. I wondered if it was because it was always raining in the book, but really it was the prose…there was this ever present gloom. Anyway, can’t wait to see how these two resolve their demons.

  8. Kaetrin
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 05:06:33

    I’d have already read this one if it was available to me as an ebook. I’m getting more and more reluctant to buy print, but I might have to give in with this one. I loved Breath on Embers and Liberating Lacey.

  9. Dabney
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 08:10:40

    @Victoria Paige: I’d love to know what you ultimately thought.

    @Kaetrin: If you loved Breath on Embers I think you’d really like Unforgiven.

  10. Victoria Paige
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:39:33

    Ok, this book left me feeling weird. I really liked the story, the writing was very good. I actually marked paragraphs of prose that were almost poetic. But somehow I felt a detachment, as if I was an observer but not actually experiencing the story. It’s amazing though, when Adam made his decision in the end, I felt that gloomy feeling lift like he was riding his bike out of some dark tunnel into the light.

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