All Beautiful Things
by Nicki Salcedo, contemporary (2014)
Bell Bridge Books, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-61194-376-4


Nicki Salcedo is an author that is new to me, but the plot synopsis of All Beautiful Things intrigues me enough to pick this up. I'm in the mood for some romantic suspense that does not involve cops, secret agents, or Navy SEALs, and this one looks like what I'm looking for.

Some seven years ago, Ava Camden almost died when she was brutally assaulted after hanging out with some friends in an Atlanta restaurant. She survives, but her face is badly scarred. Joel Sapphire - seriously, that's his name - was convicted of the crime and her father, a lawyer who held considerable social clout in Atlanta, went all out to ensure that Joel never had a chance in the court. In the process, the whole thing turned into a circus, and it became a Black Woman Assaulted By Crazy White Guy farce. Today, years later, Ava is still trying to come to terms with what has happened to her. She distracts herself by managing a shelter for homeless men, although that refuge is fast coming to an end as her mother decided to exert some tough love and close down the shelter, in hopes of forcing Ava to stop hiding from the world.

Things become more complicated when Joel is paroled when the story opens, only to go MIA. His brother, Graham, seeks out Ava because he has no other options. His mother is dying of cancer, and she'd like to see Joel again. Meanwhile, Ava decides that confronting Joel may be the only way she can find closure. Alas, it may just be that Joel is not the man that assaulted her years ago, and the actual villain may still be on the loose.

The focus of All Beautiful Things is on the psychology of the main characters than on investigative procedures. And yikes, this story is full of people who are so beautifully damaged in so many ways, if I were a therapist, I'd feel like a kid let loose in a candy store where all the adults are missing and I can eat all I want. It doesn't matter to me whether the characters are likable or not, as the authors unpeel her characters' fragile psyche in such a way that I don't know whether I'm a voyeur or an innocent bystander in a stark yet irresistible tale of sad, depressed people.

Ava is, of course, broken, and the author manages to make her a fascinating character when Ava could have easily become whiny or annoying under other circumstances. Even Graham and Joel, who seem like too nice to be true on the surface, have some horrific scars in their psyche.

The mystery isn't anything earthshattering, but the compelling unraveling of the main characters' damage make the whole thing a fascinating read that just can't be put down. Here's where the book gets a bit hard to pinpoint. The author's technique can be on the unpolished side at moments, especially when it comes to how she can get tad too melodramatic for her own good now and then. Yet, even the flaws seem to amplify the charms of this story. The rough patches seem to underscore the rawness of the emotions burning on the pages, so much so that the pain feels more real because there is something about the imperfections of the narrative that make things feel more... real, somehow. Am I making sense here?

That's not to say that this book is that awesome. The author's biggest misstep here is to have her characters fall in love. That is simply not believable in the context of this story. If these characters have sex and decide to start dating by the end of the story, I would be happy for them. For them to use the L word, however, well, that's a different story. When these two decide to drop the L word, that's when I'm jarred from the story. I can happily go with the melodrama, the occasional implausibility in the suspense department, and more because the story is just too good to read, and then comes the L thing and I find myself thinking, "Okay, now the story feels fake."

Oh well. Still, for a debut release, All Beautiful Things is everything I'm not expecting, and I mean that in a good way. I really like it, and I'd make an effort to remember how to spell the author's name for future shopping sprees.

Rating: 83


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