Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

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“I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.” This is our introduction to Shandi Pierce, the unlikely heroine of bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson’s sixth novel.

Shandi is a 21-year-old college student who stops at a convenience store and steps into a robbery gone wrong. A single mother with a highly gifted 3-year-old son named Natty, she has always been sheltered by her divorced parents and her best friend Wolcott. With Natty in tow, she’s on her way to Atlanta to begin a more independent life. She and Natty survive the robbery thanks to a hero named William, but she soon finds love interrupting her plans.

William Ashe is one of the most memorable romantic leads of recent contemporary fiction. He is a medical doctor and noted geneticist, which is of interest to Shandi because she has an important question involving DNA. He played football in college and his blonde good looks earned him the nickname Thor. He’s also an adult on the autism spectrum who is still learning how to function in society.

Traumatic events have a way of reverberating. After the robbery, Shandi and William are forced to face problems they’ve been trying to ignore. William has a hard time dealing with emotion, both his own and others’. He uses pictures from a childhood book called How Are You Feeling? to interpret the emotions of others, guessing that a person who looks like the smiling radish is happy and someone who looks like the sorrowful eggplant is sad. Complex emotions that aren’t easy to categorize have derailed him over the past few months, following a tragic accident that took his wife and baby daughter out of his life. When William walks toward the robber’s gun in the CircleK, he hopes that destiny will intervene and free him from the pain of loss.

While William is recovering from being shot, Shandi begins a campaign to become part of his life. She’s convinced that William can help her find the identity of Natty’s father, a mysterious frat boy who she believes drugged and half-raped her, leaving her pregnant yet technically still a virgin. Shandi calls Natty her private miracle and doesn’t regret his birth, but at the same time she wants to locate the jerk who assaulted her and tell him off. Readers who have strong feelings about date rape may take offense at Shandi’s attitude, but it’s part of an immature coping mechanism that includes denial about what really happened.

There is more than one love story in Jackson’s 2013 novel about love, loss and redemption, but early on we’re given a hint that Shandi’s story may not have a happy ending when she says, “That afternoon in the Circle K, I deserved to know, right off, that I had landed bang in the middle of a love story. Especially since it wasn’t–it isn’t–it could never be my own.” But nothing is as it seems, and even the most attentive readers are likely to be surprised by the plot twists and reveals.
Jackson uses a split narrative to tell her story, alternating between Shandi’s first person voice and a third person narrative that presents William’s point of view. Although the setting is rural Georgia and Atlanta, the novel avoids typical Southern character cliches. William mentions that Shandi speaks with a slight country drawl, but luckily we’re spared an attempt at duplicating its cadences. The Shandi we get to know through her story is young and naïve. She adopts a sassy tone that manages to make light of some very important life issues, like the paternity of her beloved Natty and the nature of her relationship with best friend Walcott.

William’s point of view is more complex. The Circle K robbery occurs on the first anniversary of the car accident that destroyed his world. His wife, Bridget, is the only woman he has ever loved and his pain over losing her and their daughter, Twyla, is still raw. Because he sees emotions as either/or (either happy or sad), he would rather forget his family than deal with his grief. But the sound of Shandi’s voice reminds him of Bridget and everything he has successfully pushed out of his mind comes rushing back in to haunt him.

As she has done in other novels such as Gods in Alabama, Jackson weaves together interesting characters, an imaginative story and some philosophical questions about science versus faith and hope. The result is a novel that’s hard to put down until you reach the final satisfying page. Readers who want to spend more time with Shandi Pierce, Natty and Walcott should check out Jackson’s prequel, My Own Miraculous, a short story available as an e-book that chronicles Shandi’s journey from 17-year-old kid to responsible mother. HLM