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All the Little Lights by Jamie McGuire

BOTTOM LINE: Sweet and dark and mysterious

Genre: Young Adult; Romance
Publication Date: 29 May 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“The first time Elliott Youngblood spots Catherine Calhoun, he’s just a boy with a camera, and he’s never seen a sadder and more beautiful sight. Both Elliott and Catherine feel like outcasts, yet they find an easy friendship with each other. But when Catherine needs him most, Elliott is forced to leave town.

Elliott finally returns, but he and Catherine are now different people. He’s a star high school athlete, and she spends all her free time working at her mother’s mysterious bed-and-breakfast. Catherine hasn’t forgiven Elliott for abandoning her, but he’s determined to win back her friendship…and her heart.

Just when Catherine is ready to fully trust Elliott, he becomes the prime suspect in a local tragedy. Despite the town’s growing suspicions, Catherine clings to her love for Elliott. But a devastating secret that Catherine has buried could destroy whatever chance of happiness they have left.”

My Thoughts: Perhaps it is due to the fact that I do not typically read anything in the romance genre. Perhaps it is because I have only read a precious few of Ms. McGuire’s previous novels. Whatever the cause, I found her latest novel, All the Little Lights, to be a delightful escape back to a time of innocence and young love.

In fact, All the Little Lights made me feel better in a way I did not know I needed. Its story of first loves and loyalty, alongside the high school horrors of cliques, peer pressure, and bullying, reminded me of better times, when I too was young and in love for the first time and torn between family and that love. It is a simple story but one that allowed me to escape adulthood for a few hours.

Not that Catherine’s and Elliott’s lives are simple. Growing up in homes with parents who are emotionally and/or physically abusive tend to remove all simplicity from any child’s life, and Catherine and Elliott gravitate to each other precisely because they can relate to the other in this regard. However, Ms. McGuire is careful to remind readers that no one person reacts to such situations in the same way, thereby setting the stage for Catherine and Elliott’s future relationship issues.

One of the best parts about All the Little Lights is the fact that it is part romance and part mystery. The regulars at her mother’s bed and breakfast are most unusual, coming and going at all hours of the day and night with no regularity to their schedules. Yet, nothing quite explains why Catherine is not willing to have anyone enter her former house or why she remains so invested in her mother’s feelings when it is obvious that Catherine has been on her own emotionally, mentally, and physically for a long time. Familial loyalty is admirable and understandable, and yet you side with Elliott as he questions why Catherine is willing to sacrifice her future and any happiness to stay with her mother in a failing business.

Adding another layer to this mystery is the disappearance of one of their fellow high school students and the reactions of the town. The racism and elitism that comes to the forefront upon the disappearance is appalling and yet timely given the increasing racism in our everyday lives. It does not make the situations Elliott faces any easier to read, but it does lend an arc of reality to the entire story.

As for the romance portion of the story, it is so very sweet and pure. Given both characters’ emotional frailty and neediness, as well as their stubbornness, I see nothing completely outlandish about their behavior or relationship. It is only slightly idealized in my opinion but done in a way that feels authentic to both characters. This is not a typical Jamie McGuire New Adult novel, even if it is being marketed that way. This is truly a young adult novel complete with characters who are not quite eighteen years old, are still in high school, and are still young and inexperienced in certain adult ways. With that in mind, I genuinely adore Elliott and Catherine as a couple. They are honest and open, mature in some ways and immature in others, and all with that blush of first love that is so powerful.

All the Little Lights is mostly likely not a perfect novel, but I could see few of its failings. The story is so touching, but the darkness in both families prevents it from becoming overly saccharine. Both mysteries balance the sweetness of the romance and provide an added layer of interest over a story that could feel contrived or at the very least redundant. As for the ending, it is not anything I saw coming. In fact, it was an ending that shocked me specifically because it was so unexpected and yet perfect.

If anything, All the Little Lights confirmed for me that I enjoy Ms. McGuire’s non-New Adult stories more than I do those which made her famous. Moreover, I appreciate any author who takes a chance and publishes stories across multiple genres. Ms. McGuire proved that she can do just that with her latest romance-mystery hybrid.

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