Before You, by Amber Hart. KTeen/Kensington. 321 pages. Trade Paperback $9.95.
More and more, writers for the young adult marketplace are crafting powerfully engaging books that signal a change in reader expectations. Although I didn’t have high hopes when I opened this book aimed at the older teen market, I was strongly impressed by its evocative style, its insights, and its literary dimension.
When Cuban refugee Diego Alvarez shows up at Oviedo High School, he seems to have a chip on his shoulder. He is totally uncooperative when Faith Watters, the student assigned to welcome and orient him, attempts her task of showing him around. Each wears a mask of manners, and both need to keep their true natures and feelings hidden. In different ways, both are at once tough and vulnerable. Well, this is a romance: though neither intends this to happen, soon sparks are flying.
Diego has managed to escape from an ugly world in which he has worked as an enforcer for a major Cuban drug cartel. His scars and tattoos reflect his experiences. Handsome and athletic, his is lucky to be alive. However, his reputation had preceded him and a local (Orlando area) gang attempts to recruit him with an unsubtle “sign up or die” approach. He refuses. This is not the life he wants – nor did he ever want it. In Cuba, that life was his only means of protecting his family. His gruff exterior is his defense mechanism.
Faith is a fake good-girl. She dresses tastefully but conservatively, is nice to everyone, and pursues excellence at school. Captain of the dance team, she is also a shining representative of her clergyman father’s values and community status. She lives to meet other people’s expectations, but she hates that life. It’s not really her. The public lie that she spent her junior year studying abroad covers the fact that she was in drug rehab and is still vulnerable to temptations. Her size-to-big clothing helps hide her figure and her tattoos.
Faith’s autophobia – her fear of being alone growing out of having been abandoned by her mother –eerily complicates her situation.
Both want – in fact, desperately need – to find their true selves and live their lives accordingly. The course of the novel is their journey toward honesty, openness, and trust that can allow their slowly admitted, deeply passionate love to flourish in spite of societal prejudices and expectations. Ms. Hart manages her portrayal of this journey with exquisite skill. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 6, 2014 FortMyers Florida Weekly and the August 7 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here Florida Weekly – Hart 1 and here Florida Weekly – Hart 2.