A surprisingly deft exploration of what starts out as a forbidden romance between a prisoner and a volunteer prison librarian and tries to expand the conversation to what it means to act ethically and questions whether there is ever one “right” way to act or be.
Plot: Anne has been burned badly. Her last relationship ended after years of emotional abuse when the abuse became physical. In an attempt to rebuild, she left the south where she grew up and moved north to a small town where she accepts a job at the local library. They do outreach to people who can’t go to the library, so one day a week she heads over to the correctional facility to help with resumes, provide books, etc. Her first day she meets Eric. He’s hot and unlike her ex, he is literally not allowed to even really go near her on pain of the many guards around. So it feels safe to fantasize about him, because that’s all it ever could be. Until he writes her a letter. And she writes one back. Shenanigans ensue.
This book could have been really problematic, but McKenna is careful not to paint all convicts as good or bad people, or the correctional system is a straightforward good thing or bad thing. Eric isn’t some innocent guy that’s wasting away in jail but he’s also not some “bad boy” that’s sensationalized the way some romances do. He’s just a dude with a really rigid moral system that doesn’t align with the legal system and he’s doing time for the disagreement. Anne isn’t interested in him because he’s a criminal or because he’s innocent, she was just excited to be attracted to someone for the first time in a long time. That makes the dynamic between them just two people who have made decisions they thought they were going to have to pay for for the rest of their lives but finding hope through love that maybe the things that have happened to them don’t have to completely define their future.
There is also a great deal of attention paid to the negotiations the two must undergo as their relationship, which is inherently problematic, evolves, and do so with great respect for one another but also for themselves. They grow as individuals and as a couple and the process is as organic as it is thoughtful. It manages to do this while actually getting in a couple decent jokes too. All the secondary characters also get to have personalities, all of which weave well into a narrative meant to question whether there is even such a thing as a “good” or “bad” person when morality is such a murky thing.