Atone by Beth Yarnall

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Shana. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Romantic Suspense category.

The summary:

Beth Yarnall’s sexy and emotional Recovered Innocence series continues as two broken souls discover that keeping their hands off each other is even harder than facing their demons.

Beau: Six years. That’s how long I spent behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit—the murder of the woman I loved. Now I’m free, but life on the outside is a different kind of prison. I don’t know who I am or who I want to be. At least I have my sister, Cora. She never stopped believing in me. She even got me a job at the private investigation agency that cleared my name. And then Vera Swain walks into Nash Security and Investigations and kicks my world on its ass.

Vera: There’s only one thing that would make me come out of hiding after two years on the run: finding my sister. I made the mistake of telling a monster about her, the same monster who beat me and broke me. Now I’m forced to confide in Beau Hollis of Nash Security and Investigations. He looks at me like he knows me—the real me. He sees too much, makes me feel too much. The pleasure he offers is exciting and addictive. But I can’t fall for him . . . because my love could get us both killed.

Here is Shana’s review:

If you are looking for sunshine and soothing fuzzy animals, this is not the book for you. Rape and murder are mentioned on the very first page of Atone and it just gets darker from there. I read a lot of gory mysteries and am not generally a squeamish person but this book got to me, and not in a good way.

Trigger warnings: child rape, sexual assault, sex trafficking, child abuse, forced sterilization.

The book opens with Beau Hollis being released from prison and struggling to adjust to life outside. He was wrongly convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend, and his baby sister Cora and her boyfriend fought hard to prove his innocence. This all seems to have happened in the first book of the series, but is recapped here. Beau missed out on his late teens and early twenties and feels isolated and out of step with the world around him. He hasn’t just lost 6 years; he’s lost his sense of safety in the world, his friends, his home, and his entire family buckled under the weight of believing his guilt. I really appreciated having a character who’d come out of prison with their vulnerable emotional core intact. Wounded heroes are my jam.

Cora gets Beau a job at the PI firm that helped get him released, where his loneliness is challenged by his first client, Vera. Vera is on the run from her painful past as a foster kid who was forced into years of sex work by people she trusted. The only reason she’s come out of hiding is because of her desperation to find her sister, Marie. Marie’s gone missing and Vera’s worried that the same criminal who trafficked Vera is after her sister too. Cora and Beau spend most of the story courting and sleuthing together across hotel rooms, diners, and offices.

The story is told in alternating first person. I enjoyed each of their distinct voices and found Vera and Beau to be likable and relatable. Vera’s reasonable skepticism of Beau’s motives initially wars with her curiosity about his backstory. They’re people who’ve been broken and have learned to put themselves back together again. Both feel like no one can understand them, and are shocked to discover this unexpected sense of affinity with one another. I really appreciated that their initial spark was not a sexual one. Their connection starts with seeing through one another’s masks and a respect for the strength is takes to survive trauma. The sexual tension between them builds in a way that seemed to surprise them both.

Still, these are two messed up people with serious trust issues. Beau is in love with his dead girlfriend and is overwhelmed with guilt, grief, and anger. Vera doesn’t see a future for them since she’s living in hiding, and she refuses to tell Beau some of the most painful details of her past life until they’re forced out of her. Their conflicts sometimes seemed impossible to overcome. It was easy for me to forget their urgent quest to rescue Vera’s sister before she’s sold to the highest bidder in favor of a much more urgent issue—How on earth will these two get/stay together? Creating more tension around what might happen with the relationship than the trafficking storyline—that’s an impressive writing feat. I did have a flash of annoyance when Beau and Vera get drunk to move their intimacy forward. There’s drunken arguing. And magic peen that is the “single greatest thing ever to happen” to Vera, leaving her sexually empowered. The book doesn’t delve into Vera’s healing process beyond a brief mention of past therapy. I was relieved to focus more on her powerful present even if it required the pretense that Vera could easily go from never having had consensual sex in her life, to banging Beau multiple times a day in a variety of positions.

On a scale from Ye Olde Whiteville to Hey, Look, It’s Reality, I thought Atone did a reasonable job of including racial diversity. There are a couple of secondary characters of color, and other people of color are mentioned in passing. I liked the direct way a character’s race was acknowledged and discussed in this book. When race was relevant to the storyline, it was brought up. For example, Vera’s sister has brown skin and dreadlocks. When shown a picture of her, Cora is surprised. Vera notices her reaction and identifies it as based on their differing appearance. I thought this moment was handled well and realistically. We don’t pretend it doesn’t matter, nor does her race become the sole driver of Marie’s character. It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I realized how infrequently I was pulled out of the story to mentally critique the presentation or absence of people of color.

However, the way the trafficking storyline was handled was a concern for me. The author clearly did her research; this seemed like a fairly accurate description of how children are targeted and groomed. Yet, the majority of sex trafficking victims in the US are actually people of color. I felt like their experiences were minimized in this book in favor of telling a story about a high-end brothel trafficking solely in young white teens. Much of imagery echoes the “white slavery” trope where beautiful white women are exploited by “exotic” men. It’s clearly stated early on in the book that Marie is not the villain’s “type” because of her race, and that he is merely targeting her to get to Vera. The more Vera’s past is explored in great detail, the more I was reminded of the racist history of this trope, including how it’s been used to villainize and terrorize men of color. It’s use here made me uncomfortable and I ultimately found it a distraction, especially since the ethnicity of the villain is unclear though he has a Spanish name.

The first part of the book unpeels the layers of Vera and Beau’s personal histories and present pain. Each clue about Marie’s whereabouts reminds Vera of the torture she’s overcome. There’s a lot of angst and a lot of sex. I pulled out the fancy tea and stayed up too late reading. Since we know who took Marie from early on in the book, the suspense picks up in the second half as the situation becomes more dangerous. Vera and Beau are looking for Marie, but Vera’s former pimp is looking for them. Despite Marie being more of a plot device than a person, I became stomach-clenchingly invested in her.

And then, four-fifths into the book, just when I was looking forward to a HEA, bad things happen.

Very bad things.

Please be aware this spoiler is full of potentially triggering topics. Please read with caution.
Marie is abruptly raped and killed.

I instantly moved from pleasantly swimming in luv-angst, to being very angry and frustrated at Marie’s disposability, especially as one of the few characters of color. Since the whole plot is structured around rescuing Marie, there weren’t enough pages between this “twist” and the end of the book for the HEA to feel satisfying to me. How can there be a HEA when you just killed the heroine’s reason for living?

I also found it strange that Marie’s death didn’t impact Vera as much as I would have expected. Beau and Vera mostly respond by having sex all day every day, out of boredom. It felt like I was grieving more for this fictional character than her fellow characters were.

It’s hard to give this book a rating. Even through my annoyance, there were many things I enjoyed about Atone. There’s some lovely writing, with characters I came to care about and an engaging and unpredictable plot. I’m picky about contemporaries as my patience for sexist historical heroes evaporates in a modern context. If every contemporary romance had Beau, I’d have no problem. His angst never tipped into whiny-woe and he was always more focused on being a caring champion for the women around him than he was on avenging his own wrongs.

Before the plot twist I was ready to give Atone a B+, but the last 20% of the book was a (WT) F. I was totally sucked into the story even as I was increasingly annoyed by the trafficking plot. But honestly, I wish I could go back in my time machine and DNF this book, because the last part was so unpleasant that it tainted my whole experience. I think part of why it’s hard to give Atone a grade is because it mostly succeeds (until the end) as literature generally, but it fails as a romance.

I know I was hard on Atone, and it’s tough for me to give it a D, even though I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone and am still angry at it. Honestly, many of the romances I read contain covert or unconscious racism, if only in their total absence of people of color. I love romances, so I read them anyway. I’m torn.

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