A defense attorney attempts to save her client from the death penalty—and falls in love with him in the process—in this novel.
Alejandro Soto is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole for a double murder: He killed Carlos Sanchez, the “cruel, sadistic, barrio dope dealer,” and the culprit’s mother, who happened to be home at the time. Suddenly, Alejandro is charged with the decade-old homicide of another nefarious figure, “completely bogus” charges that would be meaningless if not for the fact that a conviction could render him vulnerable to the death penalty. He’s represented by Barbara Blake—a tough criminal defense attorney who spent years as a public defender before she went into business for herself. He’s immediately entranced by her beauty and command in the courtroom, and she requites his intense infatuation, forming a primal connection. In fact, Barbara falls so “hopelessly in love” with Alejandro that she frets it will be discovered and compromise her ability to adequately defend him, a terrifying prospect given the enormity of the trial’s stakes. But internally, she gushes “giddily”: “I have never, but never, felt like this before.” Ruiz (Life Long, 2017) sensitively chronicles Alejandro’s disadvantaged, often brutal life in California, caught between the mercurial tyranny of his father and the merciless nihilism of the streets, an intricate personal history the inmate unreliably relates to Barbara out of a profound sense of shame.
The author adeptly captures the grim reality of prison life—Alejandro is incarcerated in a “Security Housing Unit” reserved only for the “worst of the worst,” and his attempts to “ward off insanity and suicide” are powerfully depicted. Ruiz artfully develops Alejandro into a complex character—both a victim and murderer, neither a hero nor villain, and a man who takes solace in the company of great literature while in prison. Barbara, too, is a captivating figure—twice divorced, she rose from the ashes of romantic failure to become a brilliant lawyer, and her “unique style of cross-examination,” part rhetorical concision and part savage mortification, is thrilling to behold. In addition, the author writes in crisply evocative prose, both poignant and lucid. But the principal premise that undergirds the entire plot—Barbara’s rhapsodic attraction to Alejandro—is presented as a brute fact rather than rendered literarily believable: “She loved him, she loved him, she loved him. And she was going to enjoy and revel in the moment forever….She could live with the two killings.” The central difficulty is not that the bond is inconceivable but rather that Ruiz never makes the effort to fully explain it or to slowly develop a love that defies convention and expectation. There’s much to admire in this deeply intelligent novel—especially its nuanced presentation of Alejandro’s troubled upbringing. But since everything hinges on Barbara’s unrestrained affection for Alejandro, and that love remains bewildering throughout the tale, the intense relationship becomes an ostentatious flaw and an exasperating distraction.
A thoughtful exploration of life amid urban blight and in prison that’s partially diminished by a love story that seems phantasmagoric.