Tess and her best friend Doll are in Florence towards the end of their last vacation before Tess goes off to university. Gus is in Florence with his parents as they all face the sudden, shocking loss of his older brother. Tess and Gus run into each other in a beautiful, quiet church and then again on the street in Florence but they each go their own way, returning to the lives that each had planned. This may be the first time they come across each other, but it certainly won't be the last.
When Tess gets home, she is blindsided by the fact that her mother is very ill. Her five year old sister's care all falls to her and when their mother dies, Tess's dreams of university die with her. Someone has to be there to take care of Hope and that someone is Tess. Nothing about her life is the way she planned it. Meanwhile Gus is not in charge of his own life either, compelled to live up to a memory (one that perhaps isn't as honest as it should be) and choosing to train as a doctor because that's what his father wants for him and that's what his brother was doing. Like Tess's, his life is far from what he once dreamed and wanted. Both characters go along living their lives sometimes seeming to move towards each other and other times away. As they go about their daily lives, experiencing events major and minor, there are constant near misses between the two of them, times where they might have connected or met but didn't, times when they crossed each others' paths but didn't pause, times when their lives almost intersected but then didn't.
The novel is told in chapters alternating from Tess's first person perspective to Gus's first person perspective so neither of them know how close they occasionally come to meeting the other but the reader sees them slip past each other time after time after time. Spanning 16 years, the chapters sometimes jump in time, showing Tess and Gus at major decision points in their lives and giving the reader the general shape of their lives. But their lives are not parallel, nor are they combined except in the very beginning in Florence and when they finally meet in the end. For the majority of the novel, they live very separate lives, without any knowledge of each other and their situations. Both of them are damaged by their losses and face difficulties that reverberate throughout their lives and relationships. Gus always feels he's competing with his dead brother and coming up short. Tess not only becomes the primary caregiver to her sister, where things get even more complicated when their father essentially checks out after Hope is diagnosed with Asperger's, but she also lives with the fear of dying young of breast cancer just like her mother. Neither of the characters is entirely likable and Gus especially does some pretty reprehensible things but they are very real, the both of them.
The separateness of their two lives and therefore the two plot lines might cause some readers a bit of frustration but Eberlen seems to know just when to insert a near miss to remind the reader that while these two are currently living lives unknown to each other, they are in fact close enough to touch. Because of the first person narration, it can be hard to know the secondary characters and sometimes the reader needs to be reminded that these minor characters are being filtered through the main characters' eyes. After so many years of Tess and Gus passing like ships in the night, and in some ways that journey is everything, the ending feels rushed even if the reader knew that's where it was going all along. Leaving aside the predictable quickness of the ending, this is definitely a different and interesting take on the "what ifs" of life. A worthy addition to your beach bag for sure.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper for sending me a copy of this book to review.