Someone Else’s Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson

someone else love storyWhen I finished reading this book, I felt such a sense of loss, it was like a break-up. We’d only been together less than a day — since I could not stop reading it — but during that time I fell deeply in love with at least three of the book’s characters. As for the author, I’ve always been in literary love with Joshilyn Jackson, but this, her sixth novel, may be my very favourite.

Someone Else’s Love Story tells the stories of two characters — Shandi Pierce and William Ashe — whose lives collide when they are both held at gunpoint in a convenience-store robbery. Shandi is a young single mom trying to finish college, raise a brilliant three-year-old, and balance the competing claims of two divorced parents who both love her very much but want different lives for her and her son. William is a brilliant scientist with a touch of Asperger’s and a life shattered by the tragic loss of his wife and daughter a year earlier. Shandi falls head-over-heels for William, and the story alternates between their two perspectives (Shandi’s in first-person, William’s in third-person) chapter by chapter as they deal with the aftermath of the store robbery and the secrets from their pasts each of them has been forced to confront.

Jackson has such a beautiful command of voice in this novel: William and Shandi are very different people and the way they think and view the world is completely different, and the language in their chapters reflects that perfectly, drawing us into each of their minds. This is not the sort of story where the desired “happy ending” is obvious from the start: as you read you realize that many outcomes are possible and there will be some joy and some loss however it works out. One thing Joshilyn Jackson is a master of is the unexpected twist in the story that forces you to view everything that’s happened so far in a different light — and when she pulls off the twist in this one, the ground under your feet will shift and so will your idea of what a “happy ending” might look like.

Shandi and William are great, multilayered, well-developed characters but so are the others in this book — William’s tough-as-nails best friend Paula; Shandi’s mother; William’s wife Bridget, whose love story unfolds in the flashbacks, and perhaps my very favourite, Shandi’s devoted best friend Walcott, who genuinely seemed to me like he had wandered into a Joshilyn Jackson novel from his original home in the pages of a John Green novel. Even the most potentially hateable character in the book — I won’t tell you who that is — turns out to have a very human face. This is a novel where people are capable of making wrong choices and doing very bad things, but even the villains are viewed through a compassionate lens.

What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s writing is that she’s a good church lady whose books are full of the kind of scenes that good church ladies’ books aren’t supposed to contain — by which I mean that she’s a Christian who writes novels no Christian bookstore would carry, because they have sex scenes and people are flawed and messed-up and real. Every book Jackson writes is a work of theology and her one theological teaching is always the same: grace. Her characters need grace and they extend it to each other, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Her novels nearly always include at least a few characters who are overtly religious, church-going people — and often it’s those same characters who are agents of divine grace, but rarely in traditionally religious ways. For example, in this novel, William’s wife Bridget is a devout Catholic girl who plans to become a nun. Even after she abandons that vocation to marry William, she works at inner-city missions, but for her atheist husband, the most powerful way in which Bridget acts out grace is through a rundown city park that she transforms into a place of beauty and refuge by planting flowers and building birdhouses. In Jackson’s novels, grace comes in unexpected ways and sometimes from the people  you’d least expect to receive it from — but it never fails to show up.

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