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Going the Distance Kindle Edition
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Anyone who has traveled alone will be able to empathize with Olivia teaching kindergarten in rural China. Anyone who has had to kick-start their life after a traumatic event will see themselves in her. Keyes does an incredible job of creating suspense by referring to the trauma without explaining it for about a third of the book. What did this golden girl do that made her flee her home town?
Out of loneliness, Olivia starts spending time with Jarek. Now a construction worker who takes jobs around the world, his military past was all about searching for the truth. He has spent his adult life building emotional walls only to be challenged by this kindergarten teacher in the process of rebuilding her own life. These are interesting, complex characters that make it almost impossible to put your ereader down.
There are a number of amusing scenes where Jarek is trying to figure out how he ends up trying to please Olivia when such behavior is the antithesis of his normal style. Watching him gradually open himself to the possibility of caring for someone else has him reeling like a concussed boxer.
Ms. Keyes does a GREAT job of describing Olivia's experiences at school. Imagine being responsible for creating a play about Red Riding Hood starring thirty students where the wolf can't be bad and Spidermen rule.
I ended the book without being able to understand the behavior of Olivia's parents, but was too enamored of Olivia and Jarek to care.
At the time of this writing Julianna Keyes has only three novels. I suspect I will be rereading these books as I continue my search to find another author in this genre with the same literary chops.
Premise: Olivia (late 20s) is spending a year in China teaching kindergarten to a room of 6-year-olds who don't really understand anything she's saying. She left a breakup and a life that had suddenly gone spectacularly sour to come to China, thinking that she would reinvent herself, be a strong single lady, and generally increase her awesomeness, but instead she has found herself to be isolated, lonely, afraid, and stuck in a tiny apartment. There are very few other foreigners where she is, so the best she can do is hang out with the handful of other Americans who work for a major construction project. It's through them that she meets Jarek (mid-30s), a former Army interrogator, life-long stoic/"I want to be alone" guy, current carpenter. Jarek doesn't do dates or sleepovers, let alone relationships. He's emotionally messed up in the way so many dudes in romance novels are, but I felt that this book actually sold it, between his dysfunctional background and his military career. Jarek is cold, distant, and periodically kind of scary.
So many things here really worked for me. The prose quality is VERY good, which in itself is often enough to make me stick with a book. The main characters are fleshed out, the dialog is real, their emotional issues (personal and between the two of them) make psychological sense. You really get to the "but how can they possibly recover from these things?" place. The smexing is very intense and sexy and not paint-by-numbers or boring. I really liked the setting (China) and that the book uses the setting realistically: Olivia has culture shock, Jarek is there to disappear, neither of them has magically integrated into the local community, the Chinese folks are real people with their own quirks who are not super interested in the Americans (aside from possible entertainment value). I liked that Olivia is a sweet person but a sweet person with at least some boundaries. She felt very grown-up and insightful, which I loved: she was frequently confused by Jarek's behavior or motivations, but she understood why and how she was confused. Even though a lot of their couple problems were about communication, it felt like real communication problems. Jarek is basically... you know, he's a person who has done a lot of terrible things. What kind of person is not terribly bothered by all the terrible things he has done? Well, not a guy who is cozy and good at talking about his feelings, probably. (He is also very sexy. Phew! If you like slightly mean, kind of broken gamma heroes, this is your guy.)
Okay, what didn't work for me was three things: first, the beginning felt rushed, pace-wise. Olivia and Jarek have met and initiated the romance launch sequence before I had much of a sense of who Olivia was and what the setting was. That's not my personal preference, and at first I was worried it was going to be a rushed contemporary romance of the exact type I don't like, but a chapter or two in things really improved.
The second thing was that Jarek behaves REALLY REALLY REALLY poorly - just a spectacular set of crappy choices, and I didn't feel that his groveling matched his behavior. Olivia was too forgiving for me throughout the book, too accepting of what he could give, and for the most part I was willing to accept that as a central part of her personality. But after what Jarek pulled at the end, I wanted to see her get really freaking angry, and then see Jarek grovel on an Olympic level.
The third thing was something that felt weirdly tonally wrong for this book, so maybe it was something foisted on it by a well-meaning editor. Most of the book felt very accurate in terms of how minor characters respond to people developing a romance in a functionally isolated and tiny community where there's not that much to do. But toward the end, for no reason I could see, minor characters suddenly got super invested in Jarek's feelings about Olivia, giving him advice, badgering him to make phone calls, etc. I always dislike the thing in some romances where minor characters are gossipy and way too interested in how the romance is going, but it felt so particularly unrealistic and jarring and fake in such a good, otherwise-realistic book.
Even so, I really liked this book. Probably closer to 4.5 stars.