Not every story is a perfect fairytale.
Victoria (Tori) Anderson has spent her entire life invisible. She plays the good girl well doing whatever it takes to pacify those around her, including her scumbag boyfriend who doesn't necessarily deserve her loyalty. When tragedy strikes bringing her boyfriend's extended family into town Tori is offered a way to escape in a dangerous package.
Multiple tattoos and piercings should warn Tori to stay away but something about Sterling Bentley draws her in: into his life, into his bed, into his soul, his heart and his pain. What do you do when you find the love of your life and they are the opposite of what you thought you wanted?
Do you run?
Or do you stay?
Sometimes we don't get to choose. Sometimes life brings us the unexpected, challenges us, and pushes us out of our comfort zone for a reason.
Sterling Bentley just might be Tori's reason.
So let me begin by saying that while I will attempt to write this review with as few spoilers as I can manage, there are plot points which I will need to reveal in order to be fair in my review. Not revealing them will make this review stilted and I'd like to be as thorough as possible as I believe this author has potential. Those who know me know I would not bother to write this sort of review if I felt otherwise.
All right, now that that's out of the way. I really wanted to give this novel a higher rating. The actual meat of the story was compelling; the look at addiction and its fallout for those who love an addict, as well as for the addicts themselves, was well thought out. Though not mentioned in the synopsis, it becomes clear early on that Sterling Bentley is an addict. His behavior toward his loved ones (and I use this term loosely - if you read the book you'll understand why) is, at times, despicable. But, as is often the case with addicts, there are underlying problems that Sterling is running from. He's not simply an asshole looking to beat up the world. He is really and truly damaged. The relationship he has with his father is painful to watch and endure. As I read I felt myself wincing at their interactions. Watching someone being systematically torn down and knowing that Sterling had spent his life under the merciless thumb of his father was heartbreaking. I immediately understood why Sterling internalized his emotions, sheltering himself, finding refuge in addiction and amongst the prison walls he'd erected for himself. I never found his lashing out at people to be founded on cruelty, but more based on self-preservation. If what we are taught to think and feel about ourselves is based on anger and ridicule, then how are we expected to navigate a world in which others expect to see the good in us?
If you're unable to understand the complexities of addiction and how self-loathing can manifest in the abuse of others, then this may not be the book for you. It's easy to become angry with Sterling. He makes terrible choices, he treats people poorly, he commits some egregious acts, especially toward Victoria (Tori). No, he never physically harms her in any way, but he does other things which are equally henious and hurtful. If you aren't able to parse this all out and put it all into context, you may walk away from this book hating him. I didn't hate Sterling. I actually really liked him as a character. He was raw and unapologetic, he was pained and damaged, but underneath it all there was a hidden desire to be accepted and loved.
You may also disagree with Tori's need to "fix" Sterling. But I got that, too. And, in the end, it became clear she understood there was truly no way she could affect any change in him. Tori's journey with Sterling, though dark, was something necessary for her as well. Though never exposed to the type of treatment Sterling had been exposed to, she suffered from an overbearing and angry mother whose expectations were unachievably high. Coupled with a severe injury suffered during a childhood accident, Tori was always made to feel inadequate. Her hobbies were ridiculed, her future mapped out, her boyfriend selected, all by a mother who seemed determined to create a second chance for herself. When you witness all that Tori has endured over the course of her life - the accident, the loss of a loved one, the absolute rigidity of her mother, the loveless relationship she has with her asshat of a boyfriend - you begin to understand just how much she needs someone like Sterling in her life. As unhealthy as he is, both to himself and to her, he provides a way for her to prove her self-worth, to become self-sufficient and step out of the shadows of her previous life.
When Sterling and Tori meet they immediately begin to seek each other out, not fully cognizant of the "why" thrusting them together. But the why was simple. Tori's ability to nurture was compelling to Sterling's unloved heart and Sterling offered Tori's nurturing side something to be fixed. Was this a healthy relationship? No. It was frought with danger and an entirely different kind of addiction. What people often lose sight of, and these characters were no exception, is that we can no more affect change on another human being than we can effect the weather. We may provide the impetus for change but change must be made at the behest of the person suffering the affliction. What was nice to see was that the author understood this as well and allowed her characters to suffer through this discovery and come out the other side.
To some extent these two characters are meant for each other, in other respects they're about as right as lipstick on a pig. Should you read this book you will no doubt find yourself becoming angry with one or both of them at some point during the course of the novel. It's impossible not to, they are both young and impulsive, making life-altering decisions with very little thought to consequence. But they learn and adapt over time, and I really appreciate that the author didn't merely wrap it all up in a neat little bow and make it all better. It's gritty and upsetting and real.
So why the three stars? Well, there were a few reasons for that. First, I found the beginning of the book rather unfocused. There was a point at which I understood what the author was trying to accomplish but it actually detracted from the story. The first several chapters (about 15% of the book) are dedicated to setup. However, the amount given wasn't required. As a matter of fact, the story would have been far more impactful if chapters one and two were kept intact, and chapters three through seven were condensed into maybe one or two chapters. In addition, there are a few POV changes that made little sense. I found little to no value in hearing from Keria (Tori's cousin) and Colton (Tori's boyfriend), especially since they disappeared from the story for a huge chunk shortly afterward. Writing first person does limit what you can reveal, it's limiting in many respects because you're viewing the story solely from the protag's eyes. That being said, there are other ways in which to reveal information pertinent to the story without POV shifts. Keen observation by the protag, revelatory dialogue, observed interactions between secondary characters are just some of the ways in which to reveal information.
This POV shift happens again when Sterling enters the story and while I actually enjoyed reading the inner dialogue and getting to see things through his eyes, the author didn't spend much time in his head. There were aspects of the novel which would have been better told from his perspective, times at which it would have made it edgier or, perhaps, even softened it. These were aspects I craved and felt were necessary. Another POV shift happens toward the end of the novel when first we hear from Starr (Tori's new friend and Sterling's ex-girlfriend) and then from Sawyer (Sterling's younger brother). While these POV's actually added a layer of depth to the story, both providing backstory on Sterling, they would have been more impactful coming directly from Sterling or even Tori. Each POV change was literally one chapter, so when looking at the story as a whole they offered little to the plot and the reader beyond the aforementioned revelations. So, when you tally this all up there are six distinct POV's involved in the telling of this story. Far too many. Even really seasoned authors have difficulty navigating through a mindfield like that. Each voice must be distinct and offer something tantalizing to the reader in order to justify their presence. Sadly, this was not the case and would be something worth changing.
My second big issue was the grammar in this novel. There were so many instances of misused words, words chosen incorrectly or simply ommitted that it was a distraction. I know authors are able to revise and reissue their works and I hope that this author does just that. I recently read Rule by Jay Crownover. I'd put this book off because I'd read about all the typos and grammatical issues but then the author fixed them and re-released the book. While I never read the original version for comparison sake, I gleaned enough from the reviews to understand that the subsequent editing was a success. I strongly recommend that Adriana Law do the same, it would garner her another star and I will gladly add it to this review/rating. I usually give indies a pass when it comes to stuff like this because I understand that these novels lack the polishing one would find from a big house release. But when these instances occur on every page I have to make mention of it. There were also punctuation problems; sentences without commas, question marks ommitted, quotation marks missing from indented paragraphs.
Not to get too nitpicky but there were also some tense issues. Mostly in the beginning of the book. Specifically all of chapter two. This was written in present tense but should have been written in past tense as the protag was nine.
My third issue was the ending. I don't want to make it seem as though I wasn't entirely pleased, that's not the case at all. I think part of it was executed really well, it's the epilogue I'm not entirely happy with. In my estimation, these finals scenes should have been added as chapters and the story extended a bit into an epilogue that reached beyond the point the story ended. I don't want to give too much away, but what I will say is that the book ended too abruptly. No, there's no cliffhanger, all is resolved and there's a HEA, sort of, but it felt like there should have been more.
If you can get past these issues I think you'll enjoy the book. I will say that the author mapped out a good, well paced story. I wish more time had been taken developing the relationship between Sterling and Tori, I think it would have made the story more compelling but I was ultimately okay with how things worked out.