As someone who reads to escape reality and to immerse myself in emotions that are not my own, I am constantly seeking that ‘high’, that rare moment when every sensation running through me is dictated by the characters and the story they are telling. It can be a random burst of laughter, it can be the feeling of having your heart crushed and your breath stolen away from you, or it can be an overwhelming sense of joy for you’ve become one with the characters and their every happiness intrinsically becomes your own. And while those moments are rare and far between, I seek them, fear them as much as I need them, loving how deeply a story can touch us as readers and even alter our perception of our own lives. So when a book comes along that essentially robs you of every figment of control you thought you had over your own emotions and pulls on your heartstrings like a skilled puppeteer, you feel like you’ve just won the jackpot. This book did not just make me cry at times—it made me cry cover to cover. Once it opened up the floodgates, I never knew what would trigger the next tear. Fern, Bailey and Ambrose are characters that I loved with all my heart, their beautiful souls hopefully leaving a permanent mark on my own, as stories like these are rarely told, and even more rarely with such positivity and genuineness. This is a story that will inspire you, overwhelm you, fill you with so much faith in the human spirit, and it will show you that sometimes the most beautiful tales are found where you least expect them to be.
“She’s not pretty. Little, funny Fernie. She’s not pretty. Poor Fernie.”
Fern is the girl whom no one notices at school, the ugly duckling who is still more child than young woman, but whose goodness and kindness shine through in everything she does. From the day she was born, she has been joined at the hip to her cousin Bailey, a boy diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of four. They have grown up as best friends, thick as thieves, but as his ability to look after himself slowly declines with age, Fern naturally becomes his carer, stepping in whenever he is unable to do something, filling his everyday life with all the experiences that he would otherwise miss out on, and helping him live life to the fullest as the day his illness would take him away from her slowly approaches. Fern’s innate positivity fills their days with constant joy and laughter, appreciating even the smallest of blessings in life, her almost childlike matter-of-fact approach to the world around her never allowing her to focus on all that was not given to her, but rather embracing and cherishing all the beauty that was.
“If God makes all our faces, did he laugh when he made me?”
Fern knows she is not pretty. She knows what physical beauty looks like because she has loved one beautiful face in particular all her life, even though the object of her affections has never seen her the same way or returned those feelings. Ambrose Young is the popular jock at school, the captain of the wrestling team, the guy every girl secretly dreams of dating and every guy wishes they could be. And while Fern knows someone as beautiful as Ambrose could never love someone as plain-looking as she is, she never stops dreaming of the day he would finally notice her as a woman and love her the same way.
“I’d just trade faces.”
“But God gave you that face.”
“Well, if I could, I’d make myself another. Then maybe Ambrose Young wouldn’t be too beautiful to even look at me.”
Ambrose is not a superficial young man, but he appreciates and is attracted to beauty as most human beings are. His energy, dedication and loyalty to those around him make him someone others instinctively gravitate towards, his handsome face not even holding a candle to the true beauty inside him. And while he has always noticed little Fern, even felt a subtle protective streak towards her, he has never quite truly seen her.
“Do you think there’s any way someone like Ambrose could fall in love with someone like me?”
“Only if he’s lucky.”
As their high school years draw to an end, the little fearless redheaded pixie becomes harder and harder to ignore, her courage and honesty igniting reactions in him that he never expected to feel. But when Ambrose finally starts noticing Fern, his life takes him far away from her and the only home he has ever known, their childhood innocence forever stolen from them. When he eventually returns home, Ambrose is a broken man, all his physical beauty gone forever and his heart so guilt-ridden, he cannot bear to be seen as anything but the ‘monster’ he has now become. But as someone who has always loved him with her heart, not her eyes, Fern still sees the same beautiful man before her, and never misses an opportunity to show him.
“I would really like it if, just for once, I could be beautiful to you on the outside.”
What follows is perhaps one of the most heart-warming tales of true love, of a love that is so pure and innocent, it brings tears to our eyes. Fern, Ambrose and Bailey are three characters that you end up loving equally, fiercely, protectively. They each have a story to tell, and each one of their stories is so utterly beautiful, it is dazzling at times. I will not lie to you, there are moments that are filled with such sadness that you will probably end up being a blubbering mess by the end of them like I was, but each moment of sadness is also bursting with bittersweet positivity and a message so powerful, it screams off the pages.
“Could you belong to someone who didn’t want you?”
I never in a million years expected to fall in love with a story like this, but I didn’t expect to ever find a story like this in the first place. The writing style is superb, commanding in its sheer simplicity, and every single word has the power to undo you. There is a strong spiritual undercurrent driving the story forward, but it fits perfectly into the story itself, without being heavy-handed or overwhelming. Its beautiful message is so all-encompassing and so powerful that I truly believe everyone should do themselves a favour and read this story at some point in their lives. Everyone.
“You are still beautiful.”
“I think that statement is more a reflection of your beauty than mine.”
He didn’t know how to make her understand that she was so much more than just pretty. So he leaned forward and pressed his mouth to hers. Very carefully. Not like the other night when he’d been scared and impulsive, and smacked her head against the wall in his attempt to kiss her. He kissed her now to tell her how he felt. He pulled away almost immediately, not giving himself a chance to linger and lose his head. He wanted to show her he valued her, not that he wanted to rip her clothes off. And he wasn’t sure when it came right down to it that she wanted to be kissed by an ugly SOB. She was the kind of girl that would kiss him because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. The thought filled him with despair.
She let out a frustrated sigh and sat up, running her hands through her hair. It flowed through her fingers and down her back, and he wished he could bury his own hands in it, bury his face in the heavy locks and breathe her in. But he’d obviously upset her.
“I’m sorry, Fern. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why?” she snapped, startling him enough that he winced. “Why are you sorry?”
“Because you’re upset.”
“I’m upset because you pulled away! You’re so careful. And it’s frustrating!”
Ambrose was taken back by her honesty, and he smiled, instantly flattered. But the smile faded as he tried to explain himself.
“You’re so small, Fern. Delicate. And all of this is new to you. I’m afraid I’m going to come on too strong. And if I break you or hurt you, I won’t survive that, Fern. I won’t survive it.” That thought was worse than walking away from her and he shuddered inwardly. He wouldn’t survive it. He had already hurt too many. Lost too many.
Fern knelt in front of him, and her chin wobbled and her eyes were wide with emotion. Her voice was adamant as she held his face between her hands, and when he tried to pull away so she wouldn’t feel his scars, she hung on, forcing his gaze.
“Ambrose Young! I have waited my whole life for you to want me. If you don’t hold me tight I won’t believe you mean it, and that’s worse than never being held at all. You better make me believe you mean it, Ambrose, or you will most definitely break me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you, Fern,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Then don’t,” she whispered back, trusting him. But there were lots of ways to cause pain. And Ambrose knew he was capable of hurting her in a thousand ways.
Ambrose stopped trying to pull his face away, surrendering to the way it felt to be touched. He hadn’t allowed anyone to touch him for a long time. Her hands were small, like the rest of her, but the emotions they stirred in him were enormous, gigantic, all-consuming. She made him shake, made him quake inside, vibrate like the tracks under an on-coming train.
Her hands left his face and traveled down the sides of his neck. One side smooth, the other riddled with divots and scars and rippled where the skin had been damaged. She didn’t pull away, but felt each mark, memorized each wound. And then she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his neck, just below his jaw. And then again on the other side, on the side that bore no scars, letting him know that the kiss wasn’t about sympathy but desire. It was a caress. And his control broke.