Lajeunesse’s (Star Catching, 2016) latest novel tells a story of star-crossed lovers, family secrets, and brewing hatred.
High schooler Olivia Regan had never really thought much about her boyfriends, but then, during her senior year, she meets Ethan Alexander. His mere presence “blurred [her] vision and drained the strength from [her] legs.” “You feel it too,” Ethan notes after they meet, acknowledging the seemingly supernatural pull that they feel toward each other. As the young lovers’ passion intensifies and graduation day nears, they begin to learn more about each other’s families. Ethan’s household is blended and multicultural; his mother, Samar, perhaps the book’s most delightful character, immigrated to America from Saudi Arabia as a single mother with Ethan’s older brother, Jamail, in tow. Olivia’s dad, Josh, reacts with unexpected anger at Ethan’s presence, causing her and her mother to wonder if he has a prejudice against Muslims. What they don’t know is that Josh and Samar have known each other since he was a soldier during the first Gulf War. As Ethan and Olivia’s relationship continues, it seems only a matter of time before family secrets will come to light. Simultaneously, however, Ethan begins to notice that Jamail is acting strangely; he starts using the word “infidels,” and he has a gun in his apartment. Lajeunesse constructs a powder keg of family secrets, featuring plenty of dramatic irony. Ethan and Olivia’s love for each other starts to feel increasingly over-the-top, and it seems as if the story is headed for a grand, soap-opera-style reckoning. Instead, a shocking act of terrorism upends all the characters’ lives and sets the novel’s second half on a decidedly grim trajectory. Olivia remains a vulnerable and realistic heroine throughout, and Lajeunesse pays close attention to her emotional oscillations between yearning and disappointment. However, once the FBI and terrorism come on the scene, the story seems unable to consider tolerance and multiculturalism from a subtle perspective.
A fiery family drama, ultimately dampened by a morose second act.