REVIEW: The First Boy I Loved by Cheryl Reavis
Vietnam took her first love away from her. Now it may take her next love, too.
After her husband dies, Gillian Warner realizes how many sorrows she carries inside her, including unresolved grief over her first love, who died in Vietnam decades earlier. Haunted by his death in combat and a tangled web of guilty secrets, she books a guided trip to the battle site. The tours are led by cynical Vietnam War vet A.J. Donegan, who makes his living taking naïve Americans on what he calls Guilt Trips, Inc. If they’re looking for peace of mind, they can forget it. A prickly attraction sparks between Gillian and Donegan, with neither able to let go of the past without the other’s provocative challenge. In a test of willpower and desire, they’ll have to share much more than a journey to a place and a memory; they’ll have to travel deep inside the walls they’ve built around their hearts.
Dear Ms. Reavis,
I periodically read your website to check what books you’ve got coming out and remember reading about this one years ago. Then came lots of waiting. Many other books were released but not this one. So I waited some more and had almost given up on ever getting my hands on it when I saw it listed at netgalley. Yes, finally! – cue excited squees.
I have a soft spot for older couples finding love, especially if they’ve loved and lost before. Donegan and Gilly both qualify for that description. However since they also both came of age during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese know it) both also have war wounds and must hang on to each other as they veer and stagger towards healing and peace.
I laughed at the way these two interact. They are honest past superficial, time wasting manners with each other. Neither pussy foots around with bullshitting but cuts to the chase. Gilly reminds me of many no-nonsense nurses I know – they have heart, care deeply and are dedicated to their patients but they see right through any subterfuge and will call you on it in an instant. Donegan is like many veterans I have met – blunt and direct. They compliment each other despite their different professions.
While I’m not quite of this age I am close enough to remember a lot of it. The nightly news with Walter Cronkite giving the days totals of dead and wounded, the protests, the songs. The war – by whatever name – still haunts and scars people from both nations and will for their lifetimes. The vets have their stories they won’t tell and the sisterhood of grieving women still mourn, as women have always done when men go to war. The scene of the Vietnamese village women and Gillian letting the dam burst on their emotions was moving and powerful.
I enjoyed seeing Saigon and Vietnam as they are and were with the centuries side by side and overlapping. Donegan shows Gilly the real Saigon and the real Vietnam in all its beauty and ugliness. The proof of the ugliness is in what haunts him the most and the secret he finally reveals to Gilly. The beauty – it’s all around them and in the people they meet and share memories, grief and time with.
The book is filled with wonderful characters – some of whom are mere pencil sketches but what lifelike drawings they are. Madame An who made her French lover learn Vietnamese and now runs a 5 star restaurant and caters Donegan’s coffee. Dr. Nguyen who cares for orphans but still dislikes Americans because the American War killed her father, Mrs. Tran who survived the war and found and new husband and a new life on her boat, the women of Binh Duong who live their pain and the results of Agent Orange.
It’s painful. It’s funny. It’s a trip back in time and a time for healing or at least a start at it. There are things in their pasts which might not ever be resolved but part of life is accepting what can’t be changed and dealing with the grief and pain. The ending is more than HFN but not quite a HEA. Donegan and Gilly have both gone through some catharsis and are ready to commit to working out their relationship but I’m glad you didn’t force a rainbows and happy bunnies ending.
One thing I love about your books is that I feel what the characters are feeling and not because I’m told those are their emotions. Instead their actions and manner of speaking shows me and gets me to believe in their stories in a visceral way. I connect with them just as I did with Gilly and Donegan. B
Thanks Jayne, I just ordered this. Not only do I remember the Vietnam War but visited Vietnam about 7 years ago. We saw Agent Orange damage to the landscape and to third generation victims and saw the American War from their point of view. A warm and friendly people and an amazing country. Thanks for the heads up and I look forward to reading it.
@Connie: It’s amazing and wonderful to me to see the country as it is now. Recently I’ve been watching DVDs from Netflix about CBS coverage of the war which takes me straight “back to the day.” If you haven’t seen it, I also recommend “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.” The music in it is great too.
Thank you for reviewing this book. My father went to Vietnam Nam as a doctor ( he came home). I remember the bracelet my mother wore with the name of a missing soldier engraved on it (he was never found).
I really do appreciate your reviewing a book about mature romance. I am looking forward to reading this book.
@Julie: Two of Reavis’ older books in The Navajo “Family Blessings” Series feature older couples – “One of Our Own” and “Mother to Be.” Both are excellent.
Sold! I like Cheryl’s writing anyway, and the fact that she is one of the few romance authors out there that often features older couples make this purchase a no-brainer. I’m curious though as to what time period it is set in. It can’t be present day, as that would make the couple in their 60’s and although that would be okay with me, that seems really unlikely given how hard it is to get romances with older couples published. I’m guessing this is probably set in the 1990’s or something so that they are in their 40’s or so?
@JenM: Actually I wondered about the time setting as well. Gilly has an adult son in his mid/late 30s and a teenage granddaughter (16, IIRC) who comes along with her to Vietnam. Donegan fought in the War. So late 50s/early 60s is about right for their ages.
Thanks Jayne. As a big fan of Cheryl Reavis from way back, I’m always so pleased to see her work reviewed and hope that others will become fans as well. I’ve carried a box of her books through many, many moves over the past 30 years. Added as they have been published and rereading them over and over. There are only a select few authors I’ve done that for. Even now that I can get many on Kindle, I can’t seem to let her books go – just in case I do end up in a post apocalyptic world where we have lost all things electronic I will still have my favorites.
This from your post above really sums it up for me too.
Jayne said above:
“One thing I love about your books is that I feel what the characters are feeling and not because I’m told those are their emotions. Instead their actions and manner of speaking shows me and gets me to believe in their stories in a visceral way. I connect with them just as I did with Gilly and Donegan. “
Chúc mừng năm mới or happy new year! Well, the Year of the Horse actually tomorrow but the never-ending festivities make me feel that it started 2 weeks ago….
As background, I’m part Vietnamese (with relatives who had fought on both sides of the war) and have actually been living in Hanoi for the last 6 months or so – the culmination of a life-long dream. I’ve always wondered about the reactions of American who had fought during the American/Vietnam war to Vietnam as it is now – so thank you for this recommendation.
The only caveat is that I would obviously be ridiculously sensitive to tone, authenticity and the portrayal of Vietnam and the Vietnamese themselves. This is to the extent of even getting a mite pissed off with the apparently innocuous first line “Vietnam took her first love for her” [confusing the country Vietnam with the American/Vietnam War? Not a confidence-inducing start…]. So given my sensitivities, would you still recommend this read?
BTW, it’s called the “American war” over here to distinguish it from the “French war” of independence that pre-dated it, and the Chinese and Cambodian wars which happened just after.
@Susan: LOL, I’m another one who has transitioned other books and authors over to ebooks but who still keeps my Reavis/Cinda Richards paperbacks readily available.
@CD: Yes, I did note the differing names for the war in the second paragraph of the review.
Honestly I don’t know what to suggest to you. The book is mainly written from the PsOV of two Americans and obviously their experiences – and those of the author herself – will probably color the portrayal of the Vietnamese and Vietnam. There are some Vietnamese secondary characters including one young man, who was mainly raised in the US but now lives in Saigon, who becomes involved with the heroine’s granddaughter so his POV was interesting to me. Was it authentic? Were the viewpoints and portrayal of the country and people correct? I don’t know and even if I had more experience to draw on, my POV is, of course, that of an American and one who remembers the war as it was happening.
I guess you will need to balance two issues in deciding whether or not to read it. One – it’s probably not going to be as authentic or sensitive as you would wish. Two – how many romance books are being written about Vietnam? YMMV.
“Yes, I did note the differing names for the war in the second paragraph of the review.”
I noticed – I just wanted to explain why: although it may sound like it, it’s not really a “take that” to the Americans.
In terms of authenticity, I suppose I really meant if the Vietnamese come across as real human beings and not one-dimensional, faceless villains/victims – something which seems to be the case in a lot of the media representations of the Vietnamese during that war – even/especially those that are supposedly “well meaning”. I’m not expecting an American novel with American characters to totally delve into the minutiae of Vietnamese culture, history and traditions – and I get that the novel will be unavoidably America-centric. However, I just don’t want to fork out £5.62 to read about the Vietnamese being portrayed as the exotic “Other” – whether as implacable war machines or pathetic victims. And I certainly don’t want to read about a novel where Vietnam as a country is solely defined by That War.
@CD: To me the Vietnamese are three dimensional. I felt that the descriptions of them are matter-of-fact and not out to make them exotic or Other.
Hi @CD, If you have access to Amazon/Kindle it looks like you could read at least something for free to see if you would like it. Seems it’s not a book that I could lend via Kindle or I would offer that to you. If you do read it, I would like to hear your comments on it.
Happy New Year!
Well, I succumbed and bought it but halfway through, it ended being a DNF for me. I was looking for more of sense of place and context than I got. Partly because it’s not really a descriptive book – large amounts of it is actually dialogue which gives the novel a lightweight feel – but also Vietnam itself is treated very superficially. All I got in terms of a sense of place was that Saigon was hot and humid, and had busy roads and architecture spanning a few centuries. That,along with some elementary mistakes (such as Saigon’s airport being old and outdated when it looks like this http://www.hochiminhcityairport.com/), makes me suspect that Reavis did her research from a guidebook, and not a recent one.
What I did like about it was the mature romance – that women in their 50s/60s can have sex with guys they just met [you go, Girl!] – and the relationship that Gillian had with her granddaughter. And the premise itself had a huge amount of potential. I did find the Vietnamese characters to be flat and superficial, but then I found all the characters aside from Gillian, Donegan and Mae to be one-note. That said, I did find the actions of Dr Nguyen to be rather unbelievable: in Vietnam, you would never show your dislike of a foreigner/outsider so openly – most particularly if they are a guest in an elder relation’s house. It’s just not done and reflects badly on you, and by extension your education and family. It’s a small point but easily researched to the point of being a stereotype, and also highlights a certain systematic lack of subtlety in the way the novel brings up certain issues. There is certainly a lot of residual pain from the Vietnam/American war but there is a lot of complexity involved here – particularly in the South. And I feel that Reavis over-reached when she tried to touch on it.
Anyway, my thoughts come from a certain background with a certain amount of baggage so I don’t doubt that this can be an enjoyable read for others. I tend not to like dialogue heavy books but that’s a personal quirk of mine, and I certainly loved the fact that it was the grandmother and not the granddaughter that was the main protagonist. I think this reminded of the discussion I was having with Sunita on Serena Bell’s YOURS TO KEEP where we both saw the more problematic aspects of the book but they just didn’t bother me as much as they did her, whereas now I’m on the other side of the fence.
Chúc mừng năm mới! May the Year of the Horse bring you and your family health, prosperity and joy!
@CD: I really enjoyed your comment so thank you for weighing in. Re. the Ho Chi Minh City Airport, how recently was it built or renovated? I got the impression from Jayne’s review that this book was written years ago but is only being published now.
According the Wikipedia (the repository of all knowledge, obviously), the new international terminal opened in 2007 – it’s not Dubai or Singapore, but it’s definitely more “modern” than a number of US airports I’ve passed through! Perhaps Reavis’ book was written before then, which explains a lot more of the inconsistencies – Vietnam has changed so much in the last ten years, especially Saigon – they’ve even got Starbucks, which I have to admit to making a beeline for the last time I was down there [yum yum, chai tea lattes]…
I had to laugh though when Reavis mentioned the need for modest clothing. Bold and brassy lady that she is, I don’t think Saigon has ever been modest in anything – and 40 years of Communist rule hasn’t changed it an iota. Us Hanoians are completely the opposite – although that still doesn’t stop young women from riding motorbikes wearing tight hiked-up mini-skirts and stilettos, and black bras under sheer blouses. Although it is true that people don’t like showing shoulders – obviously leg and bras are fine ;-).
@CD: I’m sorry the book didn’t work for you.
@CD Thanks for your insights, information and good wishes. Starbucks! Amazing to think of it compared to what all was going on in the early 1970s.
@CD: Thanks. I wish I could tell you when it was written, but I’m not sure myself.
I never comment on comments, but this time I would like to say something in my own defense–because I do my homework, and it’s very important to me to get things right and to have readers trust that I have done that to the best of my ability, regardless of the setting or the time period. This book was written in 2005-2006, and it was “orphaned” before it was actually published. The airport in question is the Tan Son Nhat International Airport (airport code: SGN for the “old” name “Saigon.”) At that time, it was the most convenient for tourists and business travelers, and this was before improvements were begun (2007). Tan Son Nhat was at one time the leading airport for South Vietnam, and it was used by the US Air Force. I chose it for “Gilly’s” arrival for all those reasons and because I knew she would be trying to see things through “Tucker’s” eyes and perhaps be thinking that he might have landed here. At the time I was writing the book, I had current photographs taken by an American businessman who frequently flew in and out of that airport. I didn’t make the conditions of the airport up. I looked at the photographs. To CD, let me say this: Forgive me for offending you. I can see–read–that I have, but I don’t believe it’s the “inaccuracy” that is so troubling to you, but my audacity in presuming to write about the Vietnamese people and customs. I can only say that I was writing from MY experiences. At one time, it was a big part of my job description to assist Vietnamese refugees to navigate the government programs available to them and to find them the medical care they needed. In order to do that and to assist them in becoming more acclimated to the American culture. I had to learn as much as I could about their–your–culture. I was often in their homes. I’ve been welcomed warmly, and I’ve experienced the young doctor’s attitude toward Americans. And, unfortunately, I’ve been feared. But I always tried to be respectful and to learn. It’s what I do.
@Cheryl Reavis: Thanks for stopping by and giving us some background info on the book.
You had me up until this part:
“but I don’t believe it’s the “inaccuracy” that is so troubling to you, but my audacity in presuming to write about the Vietnamese people and customs.”
Respectfully, I didn’t get that from CD’s response, especially when she was forthright about her own “baggage” and included what she did enjoy about the book.
I also thought your reply was sincere and I could see your point also, but I’ve seen that statement I’ve put in quotations used to defend not just in books with Vietnamese protags, but even when someone of the same culture writes a character or characters or setting that doesn’t ring true (I’ve been on the receiving end when writing about my own culture).
I don’t have the answer, except that each reader is different, and respond differently to the material that an author writes.
@wikkidsexycool: You are absolutely right, wikiddsexycool, especially regarding something so subjective as characterizations. But regarding the non-subjective things, e.g., airports and dress (modesty was an official recommendation for American female travelers at that time), as you can see, it’s hard to be quiet. But I’m going to work on that. As I said, I never comment on comments. It’s a good policy for authors–when we can stick to it.