Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: "The Realm of Last Chances" by Steve Yarbrough

Some books wow you with suspense, incendiary violence or action, or tales of magic and fantasy. Some books pack the same power in a much quieter way, nearly sneaking up on you, until you realize they've knocked you for a loop, whether because of the beauty of the language used, the characters, or the authors' storytelling ability. Steve Yarbrough's latest novel, The Realm of Last Chances, definitely falls into the latter category, but that doesn't change the fact that it hooked me completely and really moved me.

Cal and Kristin Stevens are forced to leave their longtime California home and move across the country, after Kristin loses her job as a university administrator and finds a position at a lesser state school in Massachusetts. The move takes a toll on both of them in more ways than simply having to acclimate themselves to cold weather and more outgoing people. Both in their early fifties, they live quiet but mostly separate lives—Kristin finds herself embroiled in the day-to-day political issues of her job, while Cal, whose taciturn manner belies deep-rooted regret and anger, spends his days restoring their home and playing guitar and mandolin, which he excels at but really only enjoys when he is alone.

"The notes not played, he always believed, were at least as important as the ones you did play, and the same was true with words: some things didn't need to be said, but sometimes she couldn't stop saying them."

Matt Drinnan, an aspiring author forced to start his life over after some mistakes completely derailed his job and his marriage, spends his days trying to fill the emptiness, while dealing with the fact that his ex-wife is involved in a new long-term relationship with another man in his hometown. Filled with regret and what-ifs, he attempts to figure out what is next for him.

As Matt and Kristin move toward each other, they are first simply grateful for the opportunity to speak honestly and openly, to finally find a friend and confidante. But as their relationship intensifies, they find themselves stepping into territory that has many potentially negative consequences for both of them, professionally and personally, as well as Cal. And as Kristin deals with a brewing scandal at work and Cal confronts his reactions following an incident of violence, all three must take stock of what the future holds.

I'd only read Yarbrough's short stories before, but I understand that the majority of his novels take place in the South, and The Realm of Last Chances is a departure for him, as it takes place in New England. But while the weather and the culture shock that Cal and Kristin experience in their move play a factor in the book, the story is so moving and so well-told, it could take place anywhere. These aren't easy characters to love—each has secrets they keep from others, and they often choose not to say the things so in need of being said.

Yarbrough is a fantastic writer. His language and dialogue are so poetic, and although I had suspicions about how the plot would resolve itself, I still wanted to read to the very last word, and was said when I was finished. I'm definitely going to read his earlier books, but trust me—this one is a winner.

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