I know I'm not one of the OG fans of Renee Carlino and since I'm being honest, I haven't read all of her previously released novels (yet!), but I'm madly in love with everything of hers that I've read and that now includes Swear On This Life.
I knew within pages of starting that I would have a hard time putting it down. I was hooked with the protagonist, Emiline, who gave off this completely disgruntled vibe and seemed very aware of how dissatisfied she was but also strangely insistent on keeping things status quo; I hadn't read a character quite like her and was intrigued about who she was and where the source of her frustration came from. As the tension and secrets began to bubble under the surface of the present day part of this frame novel, I found myself completely absorbed into the J. Colby novel/past part as I was desperate to find answers to who Emiline was, why she was so walled off, and what happened between her and Jase. The flashbacks/J. Colby novel parts provided me with not only insight but also an emotional connection to Emiline (and Jase); it was at times deeply sad, at times sweet and funny and naive, and at times they were harrowing. All in all what Emiline lived through as young girl/teen obviously created the stubborn, somewhat closed off woman we were introduced to in the first chapters. Reading/watching (because this novel was like a movie in my head) her struggle with how to move forward when it was apparent there were large parts of her rooted in her past was honest and gratifying and almost frustrating in how real her hesitancy and anger and curiosity was. Note I say "almost" because I didn't find her frustrating at all -- I found her fragile and strong and complex--but I can see how a reader who wants a flat, simple, easy Emiline would be fed up with her at times (I wasn't ever fed up, for what it's worth).
One of the things that I'm learning appeals to me about Renee Carlino's novels is that she's fearless in taking readers on difficult journeys. She trusts us with the tough stuff and she rewards us with characters and storylines that are rich and memorable; Swear On This Life is a perfect example of this. There's really nothing simple or easy about anything in Emiline's life--her desired career in writing isn't working, her relationship isn't working, and to find herself at the center of a novel that her childhood best friend (and love) wrote throws her normal state of being out of whack. She's hurt and pissed and confused--who wouldn't be? Reading her struggle to work through all of this was emotional and made the ending that much more gratifying.
I have to veer off the traditional review path for a few rambling moments to work on an idea about the two most recently released Carlino books. As I went to sleep last night I thought about what it is that makes these novels so special (because honestly if you simplified them down to a few words they may sound like many other novels out there, but I think we can all agree that they're not--they're so much more) and one of the things I kept thinking about was the moments Renee Carlino creates. In BWWS and SOTL the main characters have these moments that are written in a way that seem so authentic and easy to relate to. They also have these pinnacle moments that have you hanging on by a thread, just hoping that what you want to happen will happen. But I think what I most appreciate is how it's so evident that in her (Carlino's) fictional world (and the real world, for that matter) we're all made of these moments-- some simple and some more complicated-- and all it takes is one of those to change the course of your life.
I'm bungling this.
What I guess I want to say is that Renee Carlino doesn't try to manipulate us with over the top dramatics, instead it feels like she is holding up a mirror to us, to the world, to her characters and is giving us an unflinching look at our crummy bits and while also showing us the softness and healing nature of friendships, love, and forgiveness. Her characters are never perfect, the endings always leave me dying for more, and the issues that she creates for us to think about are interesting and multi-faceted. Additionally, Carlino's writing is impeccable and smart and clever, and she seamlessly moves the plot and her characters between the present and the 'past' in a way that makes writing look easy, even when we all know it's not.
I loved Before We Were Strangers for the nostalgia it gave me for my college days, and the NYC vibe, and the music and photography, and that the main characters were older. I love Swear On This Life for the way it captures childhood bonds, even in the face of overwhelming hardship, the honesty of a character learning how to let go of some painful things, and the enduring love that comes through the pages. I'm in love with these pages and the brain of Renee Carlino and I cannot wait to read what she does next.
Want it? Buy it here: http://amzn.to/1Uu0Y5a
Or, read about it below:
From USA TODAY bestselling author Renée Carlino (Before We Were Strangers), a warm and witty novel about a struggling writer who must come to grips with her past, present, and future after she discovers that she’s the inspiration for a pseudonymously published bestselling novel.
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?