I think I’m too old for college-themed stories. Or at least I like to tell myself that I am. The truth is that they rarely have the emotional complexity and substance that I now, as someone who is no longer of college age, seek in my reads. I do love some trademark elements present in this genre of books—the hesitation of the characters when faced with the inevitable transition from early adulthood to full-grown maturity, their struggle to accept the future before them, and the people they are becoming—but stories like these often do not have the multilayered character development that I, personally, need in order to connect with those characters and to immerse myself fully into their journey. However, once in a while, a book comes along that proves me wrong by showing me that, when flawlessly written, any story, regardless of its main themes or the age of its characters, can pull you in and blow your socks off. This is one of those books. Nothing about this story is predictable, everything is just perfect, and apart from being phenomenally written, it is one of the most refreshing and surprisingly touching tales I have come across. Do yourself a favour and allow this book to rock your world, because mine is still shaking from the aftershocks of reading something truly awesome.
“I loved being one of thousands, not one of a hundred. Because I could start fresh, be myself without being told that being myself wasn’t good enough.”
Anna Jones is the girl no one sees. After years of social isolation in high school where she was made to feel inadequate, ugly, unworthy of attention, she might have blossomed into an attractive, seemingly confident young woman, but the scars from having survived such a childhood still run deep and make her apprehensive of people’s eyes on her. She also grew up watching her unlucky-at-love mother getting her heart broken time after time by men who came and went, vowing never to allow herself to become that vulnerable or let a man become her all. Her new college life has given her a fresh start in life, far away from the misguided reputation she painfully carried all throughout her younger years, and apart from her two best friends, she fiercely guards her anonymity.
“No one knew the old me. I was no longer that weird loner who everyone assumed was smoking up before class.”
Drew Baylor is the popular jock, the football superstar that everyone wants to know or be, but under his perfect exterior hides a lonely young man, the untimely death of his parents having left him alone in the world and craving a true connection with someone. When the voluptuous redhead sitting next to him in class catches his eye, one look at her leaves him utterly breathless. She leaves him tongue-tied and uncertain of himself, but with every word they exchange, he knows he wants to know her more.
“I want her. The whole prickly-mouthed, sweetly curved, irresistible package.”
What starts as an irresistible boy-pursues-girl scenario, quickly turns into a sizzling friends-with-benefits arrangement between them, initially simply a casual ‘hook up’ of sorts to appease their bodies, but before they know it, those moments spent in each other’s arms, selflessly giving their bodies to one another and sharing secrets, are their happiest moments on any given day. Unfortunately, their willingness to embrace that happiness differs from the very beginning—while Drew sees what his life would be with someone like Anna in it and wishes to capture it forever, Anna remains emotionally distant, her growing need and feelings for him overwhelming her and making her want to run in the other direction.
“I’m not worth it. I want to shout it to him. I’m not worth his pain. He has the world in his palm. He doesn’t need the burden of me.”
Anna’s reluctance to let Drew in, to give herself permission to love him and entertain the idea of them as a couple, stands in stark contrast to Drew’s ever-growing fondness for the woman who refuses to be seen in public with him. He gives her space, time, bends backwards to make her as comfortable as possible with their little arrangement, but he secretly craves for more. He craves to claim her and let everyone know that she is his.
“Life has more color, more flavor, and heat in the few hours I’m with Anna, than I’ve experienced in all the years I’ve partied… With Anna, I feel like I’ve landed right where I want to be.”
This story might appear predictable at this point, cliché in a way from this deceivingly simple storyline, but it is the unique character development, the precious opportunity we are given as readers to hear both our characters’ inner voices, their innermost fears and doubts, that make this story so different. Our heroine is a young woman who is so terrified of being judged by others by living in the limelight with Drew, that she would rather break her own heart than come out of the shadows in which she hides. She cannot help but feel the disapproving eyes of everyone around them, watching them, wondering what Drew sees in someone like her, and that awareness cripples her.
“It’s happening already. The disbelief. The questioning. Why would Baylor pick me?”
This might have started as a captivating little college romance, but it became quite clear to me from very early on that this book did not follow any given formula. This story is incredibly multi-layered, so flawlessly written that I found myself re-reading passages just so that I would fully absorb the beauty of the prose, and it moved me deeply. The inherent vulnerability of both these characters, the powerful connection they share, the way they express with their bodies what they won’t or can’t in words, their humbling self-awareness—this story had everything that makes a true must-read for me, and then some. Ms Callihan has also given us a rare type of hero in a young man like Drew Baylor—he is unafraid to express his feelings, to become emotionally exposed before the woman he loves, and his kind of love is awe-inspiring. As much as I loved and understood the heroine, Drew was definitely the highlight of the book for me. I never expected to like a story like this, but some books are written so well, you cannot help but break away from your own preconceptions. A superb read.
“Don’t you understand? I felt like an impostor. I kept waiting for you to realize that you’d got it wrong. That I was the girl you were never supposed to see.”