New York Times bestselling author of On the Island, Tracey Garvis Graves, presents the compelling, hopelessly romantic novel of unconditional love.
Annika (rhymes with Monica) Rose, is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people’s behavior confusing, she’d rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.
Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game–and his heart–to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.
Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She’s living the life she wanted as a librarian. He’s a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.
It took some time for me to appreciate how tricky this book must have been to write. It is hard enough to represent a neurodiverse individual in a love story without ever letting it slide into the space of unequal power dynamics. Now, add mental health too, and it gets trickier. But this book works because of how wonderfully fleshed out Annika’s journey is.
The last time I connected empathetically to the representation of anxiety was Cath’s college life in Fangirl. This book is a more satisfying portrayal because not only do we see Annika’s challenges as a student on the campus, but also as an adult ten years later. We see both – her growth and her stagnancy. We also can’t shake off the niggling feeling that her struggles aren’t just because of anxiety but something else too. As it turns out, she is on the autism spectrum. The author does a wonderful job of not conflating the challenges posed by two very different conditions. She also never makes Annika come across as someone who needs saving in spite of Jonathan being the more successful and “able” individual.
There were so many moments which stayed with me long after I finished the book – her distaste for noisy bars and lack of space in crowded places, struggle to initiate small talk and make a friend, “surviving” corporate parties and events by mimicking what others do, going through a mental checklist of actions you have prepared in advance, and feeling sapped of energy once you are done with your share of talking to people for the day.
A lot of books usually avoid showing the toll (for the lack of a better word) it takes on the partner in relationships where one of them usually finds it hard to keep up and other might have to pull most of the weight at times. I guess it is out of the fear of making that person come across as insensitive. But I found Jon so relatable because of this very reason – that he doesn’t hold back when he feels that Annika is capable of trying harder. When he feels she can do more to stand up for and own their love – both to herself and the world. But he is never disrespectful or belittling towards her.
Some of the secondary characters make an impression too. Annika’s mom and her roommate are her biggest cheerleaders throughout, with a little shared secret of their own. Her dad and brother also make their presence felt, especially in the last 50 pages or so. Then, there is Annika’s sessions with her therapist – that’s another aspect of the book I loved. It addresses and shows the need for seeking out help – through counselling or medication (or both) in a positive light. It also addresses the option of getting tested.
I wasn’t a fan of a couple of devices used for the story’s climactic moments – especially since they were pretty predictable. But the way some portions were written and Annika’s helplessness brought a lump to my throat. I guess the only drawback of having such a well-etched character is that Jonathan sort of paled in comparison occasionally. His backstory felt too “basic” and an amalgamation of characters I have already seen in a lot of shows and books. I would have actually liked it if there was more done with the “corporate guy who hates the corporate world” trope. Also, it was hard for me to take his word for Annika being his only true love all those years that seriously – especially when he doesn’t come out looking too good from the way things ended between them and they moved on. I couldn’t reconcile that the Jonathan in college and ten years later is the same one we hear about briefly in those in-between years.
This is one of my favorite contemporary romances in recent times and brought me out of a really long reading slump. I am quite chuffed about winning this ARC (and the fact that the author is from my town piqued my interest because that rarely happens 😛 )