A Guest Review by Lloyd A. Meeker
Review Summary: Talented author, great premise, flawed delivery.
What would you do if you lost five years of freedom? If everything you’d ever known was torn away from you, all because the one person you counted on to save you didn’t come through?
This is the cruel reality for Gabriel “Red” Thatcher, convicted at age nineteen for the murder of his father. Now twenty-five and eight months out of prison, Red has nothing to his name and no one to help him. He is carrying close to him a rage hotter than white flames. Had his sister just testified on his behalf in court, he could have been spared the horrible things that happened to him in the doghouse. Things that’ll make him never look at intimacy the same way again.
Red cannot take swallowing his bitter rage alone anymore. Unable to kill the growing loneliness and ire with time, he heads into the Flower District in search of a gay bar to drown his sorrows. There he meets the bubbly, easy-on-the-eyes Silo Winters.
Red learns that Silo did three years in prison for an accidental oil fire. He brings Silo home, not so much for a wild romp as to relieve his aching loneliness. Besides, if anyone would understand Red’s pain it would be Silo, who’d gone through some of the same horrors he had. However, he definitely doesn’t count on Silo becoming so much more than a sexy shoulder to lean on. If only Red would let him in.
I asked to review this story because of the blurb. It hooked me, caught my imagination, big time. It promised a great read, and it has all the right pieces: good structure, the pace is good, the characters are interesting, the romance is engaging, the writing is clever and lively. The story is never boring, and the author has obvious talent. I hope she writes more stories, and I look forward to reading them. In spite of all that, Seeing Red left me seriously irritated and unsatisfied at the finish.
To be blunt, I felt the author didn’t give the underlying story logic adequate effort or attention, and relied instead on familiar romance tropes and authorial convenience to make the story come out right in the end. These are problems that ruthless critique partners should have caught in early drafts, problems an editor should never have accepted in the final manuscript.
I hasten to admit that because the romance arc is sound enough, many readers will be perfectly untroubled by all the things that bothered me. More power to them. For better or worse, this is a review from my corner of the forest.
Gabriel “Red” Thatcher is eight months out of prison after serving three years of a longer sentence. He wouldn’t have been convicted at all if his then sixteen year-old sister Mila had testified as to what happened the night Red killed their father.
Eight months before the story begins Mila does finally testify, the verdict is overturned and Red is released. In some unspoken apology, Mila rents a shabby apartment for him and promises to pay his way until he can get back on his feet.
Here the story logic problems make their first appearance: Red’s verdict has been overturned, which means his criminal record is erased. Yet for eight months he’s been trying to get a job and is always turned down because he’s a felon.
Silo Winters is more recently out of prison after serving a sentence for a drunken prank prosecuted as arson. His college buddies also involved in the prank refused to come to his defense because they didn’t want to get into trouble.
For both, their sentences were unjust; incarceration was a horrific, brutal experience. Marginalized by society and in Silo’s case, by family, they find each other and begin a tentative relationship. They are scarred, physically and emotionally. Their romance is engaging, although predictable.
There are other logical sinkholes in the road to happiness for Red and Silo, but by far the biggest story problem for me is Mila, Red’s sister. She essentially gets a free pass for her egregious narcissism, and enjoys a tender reconciliation with Red that she does not earn. Not even close.
At one point she goes so far as to accuse Red of abandoning her by going to prison, apparently forgetting who put him there. I kid you not. It’s all about her, and she skates through this story having to pay for nothing except her years of therapy.
Traumatized by witnessing her father’s murder, she says, “My brother killed a man — I didn’t know what to think. I was scared…” This is her explanation for not testifying.
That’s right. Her father was drunk, as usual, and violent. He had both his children in the basement, ready to beat them. Again. It’s happened often. Red has the scars to prove it. By inference the father also has been raping his daughter. Red takes the blows (from a table leg, complete with bolt!) meant for Mila, and snaps. He kills his father. So Mila is saved from further injury and abuse, but she’s over-the-top horrified that her brother has killed a man? Can’t buy it.
She also berates Red later for not appreciating the anguish she experienced being put in foster care, as if she’s the real victim in this story. Without doubt foster care can be full of hardships. But foster care isn’t even close to serving years of prison time undeservedly. To this reader, her diagnosis of PTSD is not adequate excuse for her cruel behavior.
Any day of the week an author is allowed to write a self-absorbed, damaged and destructive character into her story. But every character has to earn redemption, if redemption comes. And Mila doesn’t earn it. Even in the climactic scene she’s screaming at Red not to kill the bad guy (“Don’t do it again!”), even though the bad guy is armed and has kidnapped Silo. Then she has a magic moment of realization and everything shifts into balance and perspective. A tearful apology follows. That’s not enough for this reader. Not nearly enough.
Silo has a paler version of Mila in his father who, when confronted with charges of arson against his son, freezes Silo out of his heart and home.
Why? This is what the father says just before his moment of undeserved reconciliation: “After the whole thing with the fire, I didn’t know what to do. I thought he was turning into some kind of delinquent. Next thing I’d know, he’d be arrested for drug abuse or panhandling or whatever else.” Panhandling? Oh, the horror. That’s not a father speaking. That’s a one-dimensional character created for the sole purpose of causing Silo pain.
As a result of these and other logical problems that I’m not going to catalog, the story’s conclusion is an unsatisfying tangle of interaction that fixes everything but lacks depth, believability, or moral anchor.
Esch knows her craft. She writes well. She’s got great imagination. Exactly because she is capable of more carefully visioned and well-written stories than this, I count on her future books to show more coherent character motivation and story logic.