There are some books that fill your heart to bursting point and every time you think of them, your heart flutters a little. They are those books that you cannot help but recommend to every one of your friends, and over time, they become some of your favourite re-reads. Riley Hart and Christina Lee’s latest collaboration is every bit as beautiful as I’ve come to expect from this excellent duo, and from the very first page, I was besotted. A tender story of love that both heals and breaks the heart, and told through two very different narratives, braided together, but separated in time—one set in the present, and the other told through letters from many years before—a novel like this gives voice to all the forgotten love stories that could not be, and all the ones that wouldn’t have been possible had times not changed. I loved this book so much, I never wanted it to end.
Set in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the small-town setting is crucial to understanding the full story. We meet Tanner Rowe a year after the death of his beloved wife, just as he moves into an old farmhouse with a half-burned-down barn. A college professor, Tanner is a man with no family, a man who’s only ever loved one person in his whole life, and whose untimely death has left a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness in his heart that nothing can dispel. The farmhouse was once his wife’s dream for a new chapter in their life together, but it has now become just a constant reminder of all the ways he’s failed her in life, and every moment inside it only serves to feed his guilt.
Now, here he was, taking up residence in it… moving to this small town that held so many memories he could choke on them… only doing it alone, the way he had been before Emma and the way he would always be after her.
Cole Lachlan has spent the past four years of his life in prison, and even though months have passed since his release, his new felony record has prevented him from finding work anywhere. At every turn, employers have turned him down for job opportunities, leaving him homeless and with very little to his name. He arrives in the picturesque town of Red Bluff, Michigan wanting to make a new life for himself, but his hopes for a fresh start begin to sour as he fails to find a job time and time again, making his living situation progressively worse as days go by.
He now understood why the prison recidivism rate was so high, and he’d admit he almost stole a loaf of bread in plain sight just to be locked in the slammer again. At least in prison he knew where he stood. There was a routine, despite the dullness of passing days and the fear of never seeing the sky again.
When Tanner and Cole’s paths suddenly cross, they are just two men drowning in desperation and loneliness who recognise those feelings in one another, and when Tanner hires Cole to restore the old barn on his property, thus putting a roof over his head, they begin to forge a hesitant friendship that offers them both comfort and inner peace.
“I don’t want your charity.”
“How about my friendship?” Tanner asked in a soft voice.
“Your friendship,” Cole echoed as he met his gaze.
“I know it sounds crazy, but…you’re all I’ve got.” There was a vulnerability in Tanner’s voice that Cole felt in his bones. He was all Tanner had? That broke his heart, and he wondered how they got there, how they got to that point. Cole squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to let the man in again, but feeling utterly powerless against this connection they shared. “Same here,” Cole admitted.
But in the midst of it all, Cole discovers an old journal hidden in the old barn, telling the tale of a forbidden love from a long-ago era, and as they begin to read together about a young man named Tom falling in love with his best friend Charlie, Tanner and Cole’s friendship begins to change in a myriad of ways, their growing attraction leading to the possibility of something infinitely more. And once they give in, their hearts latch onto each other with growing intensity and emotion, falling in love easily and without hesitation.
When he reached for Cole’s hand and knotted their fingers together, he felt like those lanterns lifting into the sky, a soft incandescence radiating from the inside, like his very soul had caught on fire.
But as Tanner and Cole delve deeper and deeper into the mystery of the barn fire and the events leading to it, we watch two beautiful love stories unravel in the very same place, but several decades apart, providing a searing comparison between those times, and all the ways society has moved forward over the years. Riley Hart and Christina Lee’s knack for telling intimate, human stories with a greater meaning is marvellous and rare, and while their every love story fills us with joy and wonder, there is a subtle but thoughtful social commentary permeating their novels that is both perceptive and optimistic. This is one of those beautiful reads that stays with you, and squeezes your heart all over again every time you revisit it.
“Hold me tighter, Charlie.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll hold you forever.”