REVIEW: The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren
Trigger Warning: Reference to a mass casualty school shooting will make this book difficult to read for some.
Dear Roni Loren,
I have to say you were brave to write this book (which is also the beginning of a series by the same name). It could easily have gone horribly wrong. The series is about four women who all survived a school shooting at their high school. It’s such a fraught topic, I could see how, done badly, the concept could come across as cashing in on someone’s tragedy. Perhaps some will see it that way – as an Australian I’m somewhat removed from the emotional impact of such events. They still affect me but not in the same way. But I think you handled what is a difficult subject with care and sensitivity. There was no graphic detail, no torture porn.
The Ones Who Got Away also has the difficult job of setting up a series as well as telling a complete romance between the main characters. The beginning was a little slow for me as the pieces were put into place but the second half more than made up for it. Even on holidays, I read the entire book in just over a day.
The story begins 12 years after the shooting, when Olivia Arias returns to Long Acre High School (the school has since been renamed but that was what it was called when she went there) in Texas, to participate in a documentary about the tragedy. Because the proceeds of documentary are going to charity, she feels okay about participating – even a little obligated. But it’s a challenge for her to talk about even after all these years.
While being interviewed, she is also reintroduced to Finn Dorsey. He was also present on the night of the shooting – prom night. They have a complicated history. Finn and Liv were involved in a secret relationship and were making out in a janitor’s closet after an argument when the gunfire began. Finn left Liv to check on his actual date, Rebecca (a family friend whose feelings for Finn are greater than his for her), thinking Liv would be safe in the closet. Actually though, his actions led one of the pair of killers straight to her. Finn took a bullet for Rebecca, who was also shot.
After the shooting, four women, Olivia, Rebecca, Kincaid and Taryn – who all survived, bonded. They had little in common prior to the night of the prom but the events of that night changed everything and after, they held each other together. All four women are participating in the documentary and meet up for drinks after digging up a time capsule they buried a family garden. Inside the capsule are four letters – promises made by each to live a good life and thus honour those who did not get the chance. Unsurprisingly, none of the four are where they wanted to be. Olivia, in particular, realises she has taken the safe path and has not “dated passionate men” or pursue her dream career of photography. Even though the four friends have not kept in touch all that much in the intervening 12 years, it is clear that the bond which began more than a decade before is strong and over the course of the story, each looks out for the other, encouraging and supporting and being generally awesome the way women can be.
Finn’s reaction to the shooting was a little different to Olivia’s. Rather than take a “safe” path, he ended up running into danger, joining the police force and then the FBI, his mission to take down the arms dealers who supplied the guns to the two school shooters. When the story begins, he is fresh off a two-year undercover assignment and he’s having some trouble assimilating. He agrees to be interviewed off camera (because, undercover FBI agent) and plans to spend the summer being a grumpy recluse at a friend’s nearby lakehouse.
Even though it’s been over 10 years since Liv and Finn have seen one another, it is clear from the start that they still have strong feelings and a powerful sexual chemistry. They also have things to work out about the night of the shooting. Things to understand from the lens of a mature adult looking back on a 17 year old child, things to forgive, things to let go, new perspectives to consider.
Just participating in the documentary is the beginning of Liv stepping outside her safe path and she finds herself taking risks and metaphorically jumping without a parachute almost without realising it. When Finn offers her the use of the guest house on weekends so she can get in touch with her photography, the opportunity opens personal and professional challenges and risks. I admired Olivia’s bravery. Even though she had clearly kept herself emotionally safe for a long time, during the course of the story, she showed amazing courage. She was still scared but she did it anyway. The biggest risks were in falling into a relationship with Finn again – one they both agree can only be temporary. When Finn goes on assignment again he could be undercover for years and he will not subject Liv to that kind of torment.
In romance it is a common trope to begin a fling to “get it out of your system” but both Finn and Liv know that is not how it works. And they choose to do it anyway because the pain will be worth the pleasure. The explicit acknowledgement of that by both protagonists stood out to me. But it was Liv who was the bravest one I think.
“Come on, Finn. I’m not some wide-eyed seventeen-year old anymore. I realize the high of the happiness I feel this summer with you will come with an equal level of sadness when you leave.” She linked her fingers with his. “But it’s two sides of the same coin. You don’t get to have only one side or the other. You have to put the whole thing in your pocket and take both, or you get nothing at all. I don’t want to live with empty pockets anymore.” She pulled him closer until he was towering over her. “You asked what this is? This is worth both sides to me. You are worth both sides.”
The ending was perfect. Both main characters remained true to themselves and their “missions” but also managed to make their way to a HEA.
It seems that Rebecca’s book is likely next as she was the next most prominently featured in the book and she did have a powerful crush on Finn back in high school. She’s not a victim of a broken heart though. I could see that watching Liv and Finn and seeing their passion and connection, she will be inspired to step outside of her own comfort zone and get some of that for herself.
The perpetrators of the shooting are not in anyway highlighted. They are not remotely celebrated. Their motivations are really only touched upon. I expect there will be some expansion over the course of the series – and it feels right that it may take all four (I assume there will be four?) books to get there and place the shooting in a context which keeps the focus on the survivors while giving due respect to the terrible event they lived through. Each woman’s experience of the night was different (actually, it’s not clear to me whether Taryn was actually present – I know her sister was killed but whether she was there herself is something I’m not presently sure of) and each story will no doubt focus on a different aspect along the common theme.
You don’t shy away from the damage the survivors suffered, the wounds, emotional and physical they had to heal or the horror of the shooting but you also focus on healing, and more-than-surviving – on winning in ways that fit the characters and pay respect to those who were lost. It’s an emotional book, at times hard to read (and harder still for USians no doubt) but so deftly handled, that I believe it’s more than worthwhile.
Finn and Liv are clearly good for one another. They inspire, encourage and challenged each other in addition to having great sex (well, duh). I believed their HEA wasn’t based on history or grief or anything unhealthy, but instead was all about winning together and moving ahead into their future.