I've finished reading Bound by Guilt by C.J. Darlington! And what a satisfying read it was ...
Having read and reviewed Darlington's first novel Thicker than Blood, last year, I knew she could write an emotionally compelling story about sympathetic characters firmly located in specific natural environments. But it is amazing the improvement from Book 1 to Book 2 in terms of tighter editing, smoother plotting, and confident storytelling!
From the very first line, "Don't you ever feel guilty?", Darlington develops the twin themes of guilt and forgiveness in the lives of her main characters. It is their respective guilt in their specific circumstances that, in fact, draws their disparate plot lines together in a deftly handled mixing of theme, plot, and character.
The novel takes place in two main locales: the world of antiquarian booksellers and the American Southwest. Many characters from the first novel are back, including sisters Christy and May, married ranchers Jan and Keith, and siblings Hunter and Abby and their father. But the main focus this time around is on newcomer, Roxie Gold, a sixteen-year-old foster child, who is now on the road in an RV with her longlost mother's cousin, Irene, and Irene's teenage son, Diego.
No worries for readers who are not familiar with Thicker than Blood, however, as all the characters receive adequate reintroductions in this new story, and their backstories are divulged only as needed to further the current conflict. Those familiar with the first story will welcome the further character development for Abby Dawson, who is left with her own guilt from the first novel.
Roxie's guilt stems from her part in a crime committed early in the novel in which she is an unwitting accomplice to murder. If that sounds dramatic, consider that Roxie's young life has been quite Dickensian to that point, including a drugged-out mother, a major accident that left her scarred for life at age 8, multiple foster families, group homes, and more. Now that she's found a family of sorts with her mother's cousin and son, Roxie understandably hopes that happiness has found her at last.
Sadly, continuing in Dickensian fashion, Irene is a thief, who enlists her son and foster daughter to assist her in stealing rare books from dealers across the Southwest and then reselling them online. So alas, the idyllic life on the road traveling with family in an RV is not to be for Roxie. It is when one of these robberies goes horribly wrong that the plot kicks into gear.
Meanwhile Abby has problems of her own, including a two-week suspension from the police force after taking out her anger on not being able to visit her daughter (whose father has sole custody) in an arrest of the mayor's wife for drunk driving. Without giving away too much plot, Abby's story almost immediately gets entangled with Roxie's after the crime is committed. And Christy Williams, the main character in Thicker than Blood, is also intertwined in tragic fashion. And she continues to deal with some residual guilt from her former lifestyle - though her newfound faith helps her cope with a new tragedy.
Speaking of Christy, however, I will make one criticism of the novel, which is that Christy's response to the murder is quite underdeveloped. I realize she is not the focus of this story but is rather, serving as a bulwark for Abby this time, as May was a bulwark for Christy in the first novel. But still, I would argue that the tragic murder affects Christy more than it does Abby, and yet we see very little of her grief process or her coping mechanism. We presume her newly strengthened faith is helping her deal more peacefully with her sorrow, but we don't see it much at all. Some of her interactions with Abby, laughing at jokes while unofficially investigating the crime, came off as jarring to me.
Other than some misfires in dealing with Christy's character this time around, Darlington shows magnificent improvement over an impressive first novel. She again ramps up the story to a dramatic, tense, and page-turning conclusion that is satisfying even as we are not left with all the answers as to what will happen next. Perhaps we'll find out in Darlington's next novel ...
And bring on Book 3!
Check out what everyone else is saying on the Blog Tour.
Friday, March 25, 2011