An astonishing tale of family ties, loss, and forbidden love comes alive through Jennifer Hartmann’s sublime writing and deeply human characters in a novel that is so beautifully written and thought out, you’ll want to reread it almost as soon as you reach the end. Hartmann compels with her every sentence, capturing the essence of growing up and the warmth of enduring love ever so perfectly, and even with a steady onslaught of tragedies that the characters must face over the years, she weaves a triumphant tapestry of their lives, thread by painstaking thread.
I promised her I’d always protect her, and as long as I’m alive, I will. I knew it wouldn’t be easy—I knew it would be a damn hard promise to keep, but hell… I had no idea it would be this hard. I had no idea the one person I’d need to protect her from was me.
The novel starts off on a serious, even bleak note, but it sets the tone for a story that is not only carved and etched by the steady seas of love and friendships, but also by the heavy waves of loss and grief crashing over the characters time and time again. We meet Brant Elliott at the age of six, on the very day his childhood innocence is shattered forever. On that same day, however, a little girl is born a few houses down from Brant’s, a little girl he would call his Junebug, but whom the world would know as June Bailey, Brant’s adopted sister.
“You were the laughter on the other side of my tears, the solace to quell my nightmares, and the rainbow after every storm. You saved my life, June Bailey.”
We slowly walk with them through every pivotal moment in their childhoods, watching their bond only grow stronger with time, and eventually standing witness as the little boy who once slayed invisible monsters for a little girl, sang away her nightmares with a lullaby, and promised to always kept her safe, becomes a young man tormented by his feelings for a young woman he knows he can never have. Their awareness of one another shifts slowly, but with equal certainty. We watch as their feelings for one another change, deepen, become something else entirely over the years, until a single kiss turns the unthinkable into reality.
I’m still suffocating on the awful awareness that the child I watched grow up, the angel I swore to protect, the little girl I craved in a million beautiful, innocent ways—is now becoming the girl I crave in the only way I shouldn’t.
As Brant and June continue to dance around their growing desire, their resistance to cross that forbidden line drawn between them by family and society at large slowly begins to unravel. And once they cross it, there is no going back for either of them. But a love that has to be either hidden from the world or fought for every moment it exists eventually becomes a birdcage, and loving someone completely sometimes means knowing when to set them free to spread their wings on their own. Even if you don’t know whether they’d ever come back to you.
“…all I want to do is whisper pretty lies into your ear, telling you we’re going to be okay. I can’t be around you without touching you, and I can’t touch you without wanting to keep you.”
Spanning across two decades and told in multiple characters’ voices, this heart-stopping love story practically begs to be read time and time again, and is perfect for anyone who relishes being yanked from their comfort zone. I haven’t been so wholly consumed by a book in such a long time—probably another emotional by-product of the pandemic and all that it brought along—but, sometimes, all it takes is one remarkable book to breathe new life into one’s reading ‘mojo’.
“Never underestimate a man willing to wait forever for the woman he loves.”