Years have gone by since the death of Noah, his special needs son, and Wiley Cantrell realizes it’s time to move on. He and his husband, Jackson Ledbetter, try to adopt little Tony Gorzola, a deaf boy with HIV who is emotionally traumatized.
Difficulties quickly set in. Tony is a sweet boy but very damaged by abuse and neglect. And Tony’s mother, in prison, is unwilling to relinquish her parental rights. No sooner do they get the go ahead to foster Tony when another child they had considered becomes available—the daughter Jackson always wanted.
With two children on their hands, life is complicated—wonderfully so. But just as things begin to settle down, Tony, his immune system compromised, falls ill with pneumonia—and Wiley and Jackson find their little family faced with crisis once again.
A portion of the proceeds from this book are being donated to the Kentucky Youth Law Project (www.kylpinc.org), whose goal is to reduce homelessness and promote legal protections for LGBT youth in the state of Kentucky.
As usual, I begin my review with my notice to you that this isn't a romance. This is a family drama about an established couple, Wiley Cantrell and Jackson Ledbetter, who've been together for many years, and who've both seen heartbreaking tragedy and loss.
I begged for an early copy, and Nick graciously provided me with one, before the book was even listed on Goodreads, before I had even seen a cover or a proper blurb.
I didn't care. I've been waiting anxiously for this book to arrive, waiting with bated breath to find out whether Nick would do what he hinted at in book 2 (and on Facebook, where he routinely posted teasers.).
And he did. I think he had to, and this 3rd book wouldn't have felt as authentic if he hadn't done what he did.
Noah dies between book 2 and book 3. Since I hadn't seen the blurb when I read this book, I didn't know. And this isn't a spoiler, because it's right there in the blurb for this book. Noah dies.
But I knew before I even started reading. Deep down, I knew. Because it had to happen, it had to. Wiley has always known that Noah likely wouldn't make it past the age of 13 or 14, once he became a teenager. The odds were stacked sky-high against his survival, and I knew. I think that may have been the reason why Wiley was so adamantly against putting Noah in a home, to the point of defying his entire family, or even sending him to a special school, because he knew, he KNEW, that their time would be short, that it would come to an end much sooner than either of them was ready for.
In this book, we see Wiley grieve. His pain is real, it's palpable, it jumps off the pages into your heart and tears it to shreds. He lashes out in anger, and there were times when I wasn't sure that Wiley and Jackson would make it. Because not only did they lose Noah, but when their new foster son Tony, deaf, non-verbal, HIV-positive, malnourished and severely neglected by his mother, falls ill with pneumonia, something his little body isn't equipped to handle, it's as if history might repeat itself, and Wiley loses it for a while.
See, Wiley hasn't quite let go of Noah, not even after six years have passed, not even if he knows that Noah wouldn't want him grieving like this, and with Tony, he gets a second chance to not lose a child. To defy the odds Noah couldn't, to win this fight, when he lost the first one.
Still, I didn't feel as if Wiley saw Tony as a replacement for Noah, even though Tony resembles Noah in so many ways, but I think Wiley definitely saw Tony as his redemption, to right all the mistakes he made with Noah.
I cried so many tears while reading, but I don't regret a single one. I cried for Wiley and for Noah, I cried for Tony, this most adorable little boy, whose life has been so tragic up until he finds a home with Wiley and Jackson, and I even cried for Mrs. Ledbetter and Jackson, because death visits the family again.
Nick Wilgus sets a quick pace in this novel by switching between moments of utter despair, moments of quiet grief, and moments that will have you in stitches. Usually, for the latter, Mrs. Ledbetter, Jackson's mother, is present. She still doesn't mince words, but Wiley gets her. He sees beyond her sharp tongue and outrageous words, and there's a kind of kinship between the two. When tragedy strikes again, we finally see the real vulnerability in this woman, the one only hinted at between the lines so far, and I was very happy to see Wiley's momma form a tentative friendship that isn't based so much on similar outlooks on life, but on similar experiences. I think they get each other even more than Wiley gets her.
Much like his mother-in-law hides behind her outrageousness, Wiley hides behind jokes and snark, and occasionally anger. In contrast, Jackson deals very differently with grief and fear, and the two come to blows more often than not, until Wiley pulls his head out of his ass.
When Amelia joins the little Cantrell-Ledbetter family, she soon becomes the daughter of Jackson's heart. She feels older than her years, which is understandable after having lost her father, and then her mother as well, but she also is still a little girl as well. She's in complete contrast to Tony, of course, but she's kind to him, and even bonds with Grandma Ledbetter.
I was also quite happy to see some closure to the tension and disapproval between Momma Cantrell and Wiley, as well as Billy, Wiley's brother. Perhaps losing a grandson/nephew and seeing your son/brother nearly croak from grief and pain helps you overcome your bigotry and anger, and you find yourself softening to the point of wanting to make amends. It was long overdue, and it's a real testament to Wiley's strength of character that he doesn't hold grudges. I don't know that I would have been so forgiving after what they put him through.
This is definitely a book that should be read at least twice, so you can accurately capture the many nuances Nick so carefully and brilliantly builds into his writing, to allow you to read between the lines, to get those OMG and AHA moments that ever so subtly creep up on you.
I could probably write an entire essay about this book, because it touched me so deeply, because it made me feel all the things, because Nick has yet again created an utter masterpiece, and because, like Wiley, I'm not ready to let go.
I'd like to hear more from them all. Soon, if I'm honest. Even if it's just a little novella to catch up with them in a few years time.
** I received a free copy of this book from its author. A positive review was not promised in return. **
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