This book for young adults begins with Mallory and Rider growing up in the same foster home in the Baltimore area with two very abusive parents. Rider, while only six months older than Mallory, always acted as her protector: hiding her, advising her not to make a sound, and taking the blows that otherwise might have landed on Mallory. He read The Velveteen Rabbit to her when she was scared, and he promised he would be there for her “for forever.” But when Mallory was 12, she ended up in the hospital and got adopted by two doctors who had cared for her. She thought she would never see Rider again.
After years of home schooling and lots of therapy, Mallory, now almost 18, decided she was ready to try public school for her senior year of high school. She still hardly spoke, having been conditioned to be as quiet as possible. But she knew she had to get over it to get on with her life.
Her first day of school, she is stunned when Rider walks into one of her classes. Mallory discovers that Rider is the same in many ways: he is kind, and has an unshakable protective instinct. But he also has no expectations of respect by anyone, including himself. Rider is also shocked to see Mallory, and in spite of having a girlfriend, Paige, he and Mallory fall into InstaLove.
Rider thinks Mallory still needs his protection, but actually, it turns out he is even more stuck in the past than Mallory. Will the past pull them down, or can they learn to focus on the future instead of the past? Can love make them, like the velveteen rabbit, “real,” in spite of all the damage that has been done to them?
Discussion: This book has much appealing about it, but also much that is, well, a bit much. First, some criticisms:
To some extent, the author parades a checklist of issues confronting the characters that borders on the excessive. There are mean girls – and yes, where else does this manifest itself the most but in those two nightmare locations, by the lockers and in the cafeteria? Mallory’s best friend struggles with a disease that is about to change her life for the worst (although that plot line is kind of dropped). We also have drugs, gangs, cultural and class conflicts, self-esteem problems, the broken foster care system, adoption problems, to have sex or not to have sex, and more. Most are handled well, but it does seem a bit extreme and exhortative.
The characterization is mixed. Rider is adorable and quite likable, but so nearly perfect – smart, brave, smart, and talented – that the revelation of his flaws revealed in the end doesn’t ring entirely true. The character of Mallory is not consistent. She talks fine at home and has a best friend through home schooling with whom she can communicate normally. Yet otherwise she is close to mute. Nevertheless, she has a bit of a miraculous recovery from the beginning of the book to the end, as the author embraces the now very popular “Pretty Woman” trope of who is rescuing whom.
On the positive side, the romance is very charming, and even heart-warming. There are some good messages about gratitude and kindness, while still having the courage to live your own dreams rather than being entirely other-directed. The author also spends some time on the often neglected subject of regarding bad things as positives, for the lessons they teach and for the way they highlight by contrast the good things.
Evaluation: I enjoyed this story in spite of some of the criticisms I had. In fact, I liked it enough to wish the “Epilogue” would be expanded into a second book.
Published by Harlequin Teen, 2016