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When a bestselling debut novel from mysterious author J. Colby becomes the literary event of the year, Emiline reads it reluctantly. As an adjunct writing instructor at UC San Diego with her own stalled literary career and a bumpy long-term relationship, Emiline isn’t thrilled to celebrate the accomplishments of a young and gifted writer.

Yet from the very first page, Emiline is entranced by the story of Emerson and Jackson, two childhood best friends who fall in love and dream of a better life beyond the long dirt road that winds through their impoverished town in rural Ohio.

That’s because the novel is patterned on Emiline’s own dark and desperate childhood, which means that “J. Colby” must be Jase: the best friend and first love she hasn’t seen in over a decade. Far from being flattered that he wrote the novel from her perspective, Emiline is furious that he co-opted her painful past and took some dramatic creative liberties with the ending.

The only way she can put her mind at ease is to find and confront “J. Colby,” but is she prepared to learn the truth behind the fiction?

BOOK REVIEW: Swear on This Life

Renée Carlino


“Our story is great. Maybe not all the other shit, but the story of us is perfect, Em.”

I truly believe that sometimes a story finds you, and not the other way around, because when fiction starts eerily mirroring real life, when the story you are reading begins to imitate some aspect of the reality you are currently living, you can’t help but think that fate might have had a hand in it. This book quite literally consumed me—acting both as a welcome escape, as well as an unexpected yet timely emotional anchor during a challenging time—and many days after first finishing it, I still find myself processing this story in its entirety. A most unusual second chance romance where the past becomes the only key to unlocking the future, this is a timeless love story of two people whose shared memories guide them back to one another. Renée Carlino is an author whose stories always make the heart grow tenfold, but with this book she brought mine to the point of bursting.

Why didn’t he look for me? Do I even want to be found?

Emiline is stuck in a rut of her own making. An adjunct creative writing professor in her late twenties, Emiline’s dream of becoming a published author has remained painfully unfulfilled as she struggles to find a direction in her writing. She skips through life never really giving too much of herself to anything or anyone—regardless of the long-term relationship she has been in for most of her adult life—living in the moment and refusing to admit to herself that her heart has never stopped missing its other half. Her life suddenly comes to a standstill, however, when she incidentally starts reading a new bestselling novel that from the very first page feels strangely familiar to her because every word in it tells the story of her childhood, written from her own perspective.

I was in his story. The long dirt road, the hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to school, the alcoholic dad, the mom who vanished, the secret lunches and meals in the shed . . . These were the details of my own life. Emerson was none other than me. And Jax? He was most definitely Jason Colbertson, the boy next door who had once been my everything . . . my first. The same person I hadn’t talked to or seen in over a decade.

Torn between shock and anger, she knows immediately that only one person could have written that book other than her, but his whereabouts for the past twelve years remain a mystery to her. And the more of the book she reads, the more she is forced to remember a past she worked hard to leave behind on a long dirt road in rural Ohio many years before.

We both yearned for more than weeds and corn. All the books we read gave us silly ideas, filled our heads with things that might never be.

A book within a book, a tale within another tale, we are continuously transported back and forth in time, each time unlocking more and more of Emiline’s painful past as she revisits her own life through someone else’s eyes. We meet the heroine as an awkward ten-year-old girl living with her alcoholic father at the end of a long, rutted, dirt road, next door to her best and only friend Jax, and we follow her story all throughout her most formative years. We watch her blossom into a young woman, we see her fall in love for the first time and weave dreams for a better future, but we also get to witness all the horrific events that forced her young mind to hide her past inside it, and reinvent herself as someone new. Each new chapter in the story she reads unravels a different part of her past, reminding her of who she really is, of the little girl she once was, and of all the building blocks that have made her the person she should be today. When the man who wrote those words unexpectedly returns into her life, she must not only face the past she worked hard to forget, but also unlock all the reasons why the love of her life would have written about her pain in the first place.

“You ruined me that night, and you’re ruining me again with this book.”
“I thought I was saving you.”

Wishing for a ‘tighter’ knot in the end that would have perhaps left fewer loose ends at that crucial moment in the heroine’s mind when her past becomes an integral part of her future, I craved for a more momentous final ‘aha moment’ in her emotional arc, causing my own connection to Emiline to dwindle at times because of this, but I found myself happily filling those blanks with my own feelings and perceptions, turning this story into an even more personal reading experience than I could have ever imagined. The story of two outcasts who once only had each other for comfort and that was all they ever needed, and who find a way back to one another many years later through the memories they both shared, this was a book I adored and cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone seeking an exquisitely written second chance romance that will leave you lost in thought for days to come.

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“Jason Dean Colbertson, how’d you get so great?”
“You made me this way, Em.”

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