Saturday, December 24, 2022

BOOKS! (Before I Let Go)

Why am I putting out a book review on Christmas Eve, you ask? Well. I'm not going to see my family in Louisville for Christmas this year because I have to help my mom recover from something (long story), and the only holiday-related plan I have for this weekend is to make a butter pecan cake for just me and Ma. (My cousin requested it since she's hosting Christmas dinner at her house, and I'd already gotten the ingredients before I knew that I wouldn't be there.) I just finished this romance novel the other day, the day before winter officially started, so I figured why not write about it before December is over? I'm reviewing this book by itself, in the foolish hope that within the next week I'll actually finish and review two short books that I've been planning to pair together since late summer.

Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan

Before I Let Go has been all the rage on social media especially during this final quarter of 2022, but the draw for me was specifically the way I saw Nichole Perkins (Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be) posting about it back in August. Most notably, I remember Perkins commending BILG's "grown folks steaminess" (underscored by four red hot pepper emojis), and remarking how Kennedy Ryan writes like someone who has a Southern grandmother. Such praise already had me convinced, and then somewhere online I came across this line from chapter 39 that further sold me on BILG beyond any potential doubt:

"'This body gave me my children,' I tell her, sliding down to lift her knees over my shoulders. 'And it will always be beautiful to me'" (329).

What's even left to deliberate after reading something like that? So I pre-ordered BILG ahead of its mid-November release. (When I finally got around to ordering, I was actually just about to get Octavia Butler's Kindred because I knew the TV adaptation would be coming out before year's end, but I was also eyeballs-deep in the Broken Earth trilogy and didn't think I could handle another story about slavery so soon, so I opted for something lovey-dovey to take the edge off instead.)

For the longest, Yasmen and Josiah Wade were the epitome of #BlackLove, #CoupleGoals. HBCU grads who got together when they were broke, built a thriving business together in Atlanta (Grits, a soul food restaurant based on the recipes of Aunt Byrd, who raised Josiah), had two kids and another on the way. But then Yasmen and Josiah were visited by death, twice, in relatively quick succession: Aunt Byrd died suddenly of a heart attack (Josiah was the one who found her body), and their third child Henry was stillborn after Yasmen accidentally tripped and fell alone at the restaurant and couldn't get help right away. These losses sent Yasmen into a depression where it took everything in her just to stay alive and make sure her kids were taken care of, whereas Josiah went into overdrive shouldering all the administrative and financial burdens of keeping Grits going. Grits just barely survived, but Yasmen and Josiah's marriage didn't; the fighting became too much, Yasmen resented Josiah for refusing to go to therapy and embrace his grief, and Josiah resented Yasmen for retreating within herself and wanting to chance another dangerous pregnancy to replace Henry. During a particularly raw confrontation full of low blows, Yasmen insisted on a divorce in hopes that it would put an end to their fighting and lessen the pain they were in, not realizing that pushing Josiah away like that would break his heart the most.

Now, almost two years since their divorce, Yasmen and Josiah seem to be moving on. They're co-parenting their 13-year-old daughter Deja and 10-year-old son Kassim. Yasmen's made new best friends through attending yoga classes, and time, therapy, and antidepressants have made it possible for her to return to co-running Grits and planning events for their neighborhood's community association. Josiah has moved into Aunt Byrd's house with Aunt Byrd's dog (a Great Dane named Otis, after Otis Redding) and is dating Vashti, Grits' head chef. But then Yasmen begins feeling quietly jealous as Josiah and Vashti become more involved with each other, so she starts dating a white politician named Mark who's been crushing on her for ages, which in turn makes Josiah quietly jealous. All the while, these exes are each having annoyingly vivid and persistent sex memories about each other. And all the while, everyone around them peeps their lingering affection for each other, even as Yas and Si stubbornly insist that they are over.

And then, during a disagreement in their shared office at Grits, Yasmen gets in Josiah's face, and the heat of that moment has both of their defenses slowly unraveling over the weeks that follow. And then, as staff and family gather at Yasmen's for Thanksgiving (Josiah and Vashti included), she and Josiah each get privately nostalgic about the times they used to share together. In fact, Josiah is so moved by tasting Yasmen's successful attempt at Aunt Byrd's stuffing dressing recipe, and so flustered by what to do with his latent feelings for his ex-wife, that he breaks up with Vashti that same night. And then, Yasmen and Josiah have to take an overnight trip together to Charlotte to scope out a potential second location for Grits, they're forced to stay in the same hotel room, and after finally starting to have an honest conversation about where they each went wrong in their marriage and how they've coped with losing Henry, Yasmen kisses Josiah. Josiah agrees to have sex with her, but only once so they can get each other out of their systems, and then move on like nothing ever happened. They actually do the do twice that night, but who's counting? (I am.)

They uphold their deal upon returning to Atlanta, but as the holiday season continues on and a new year arrives, Yasmen finally admits to herself that she wants her ex-husband back. Then "once" in Charlotte leads to another time in Yasmen's garage in the backseat of her car, another time in the backstage area of their kids' private school's auditorium, and several times in Yasmen's bedroom (the one they used to share) when their kids aren't home. They agree to keep their trysts casual, secret, and exclusive, but it's difficult for them to think of each other as strictly casual sex partners when they're both falling hopelessly in love with each other all over again. (Even as Josiah shuns the idea of fully getting back with Yasmen, because he can't allow himself to trust that she genuinely wants him and won't cast him aside again.) Will Yasmen and Josiah get back together for real? Can they recapture what they once had? Or maybe this is a rare opportunity for their relationship to become something different altogether? Not merely a second chance, but a chance to develop something even deeper, more honest, more vulnerable, and more enduring than they ever thought possible?

I recently did a new collaboration with my book blogger friend Rachel called "Beloved Bookishness" —similar to a famous book column that rhymes with Elf Wife—and in response to the prompt "Book That is Like Comfort Food (ex. A Read That is Chicken Soup For The Soul)", I wrote the following:

I’ve been reading Kennedy Ryan’s Before I Let Go since Thanksgiving, and “warm” is the first word I can think of to describe it. It’s a steamy romance novel about a divorced Black couple in Atlanta (who are also co-parents and restaurant co-owners) gravitating back towards each other after suffering huge losses, so it’s warm in that obvious lovey-dovey, will-they-won’t-they-oh-they-definitely-will sense. But it’s also about grieving, going to therapy, cooking and eating soul food, loving your people, and engaging with your community (or your overlapping communities) in a real way. There’s plenty of angst and longing and regret, but there’s also an abundance of tenderness and Black people (especially Black women) in the South just being themselves. All of that, plus the burnt orange background and the Black woman with the smoky eye and gigantic afro featured on the cover, make Before I Let Go feel invitingly warm. Its essence is warmth, just like comfort food.

That essentially sums up how I feel about the book. After writing endlessly about the Broken Earth trilogy the past few months, I'm trying to re-teach myself how to keep my reviews relatively short. (Or "short" for me, at least.) However, I do have some additional thoughts. 

Admittedly, I think this romance novel is brilliant, but I don't love it as much as I hoped I would. Chapters vary between Josiah's and Yasmen's perspectives, but overall the novel skews toward Yasmen's side of things. And with the romances I choose, while it's not a requirement, usually I can put myself in the female protagonist's shoes. Like, Okay sis, I get where you're coming from. I see what he's working with. That's OUR man now. I was rooting for Yasmen and Josiah to reconcile, and that garage scene was certainly something special, but generally I didn't get the same thrill from them getting it on as I usually get from reading sex scenes. Maybe something about Josiah as a person was throwing me off? Like, I wanted Yasmen to get her man back, but I didn't want Josiah myself. Maybe he and I are too similar in our resistance against attaching to things/people for fear of inevitably losing them, and that's what made him appeal to me less? I don't know. It probably has more to do with my own stuff than how Kennedy Ryan wrote him. 
Still, there are plenty of other things that I do immensely appreciate about BILG. By the end, every member of the Wade family, a Black family, has their own therapist in addition to attending family counseling together! Yasmen has already been seeing her therapist to heal from her severe depression after losing Henry. Kassim's teacher recommends therapy to address his fear of death/the future and make him emotionally ready to skip a grade, and Josiah finally agrees to see a therapist of his own to demonstrate to Kassim that therapy isn't so scary. And eventually Deja decides that she doesn't want to be the odd one out, so Yasmen and Josiah find a therapist for her too. I also admire how the book handles Yasmen dealing with the consequences of what she did during her depressive episode, without making it "let's beat up on Yasmen time". As someone who also has depression, I can relate to thinking you're making the best decision at the time, or are even doing the people around you a favor, only to emerge from an episode feeling disoriented because it seems like someone else was in the pilot seat while you were asleep, and now you have to pick up the pieces. It's not until Yasmen talks through wanting Josiah back with her therapist that she realizes the full extent to which she hurt him and blew up their lives (as a couple and as a family) by demanding a divorce. And while her therapist explains that depressed decision-making can't be trusted because depression is a liar, her therapist also encourages Yasmen to forgive herself and find a way to move forward, since the depressed version of her will always be there. Luckily for Yasmen, moving forward includes her and her ex-husband figuring out how to make things right with each other.
And while it wouldn't have been my first choice, I thought it was so daring and fresh for Ryan to pose the idea of Yasmen and Josiah getting back together without remarrying (or at least not remarrying right away). In a subplot that I didn't realize was foreshadowing, Yasmen and Josiah learn during their Charlotte trip that the older couple interested in selling their restaurant to them have never been married, despite being in a committed relationship for 30 years and having adult children and a business together. For their part, Yasmen and Josiah still believe in marriage, but what cements their reconciliation is not a proposal but rather Yasmen asking Josiah to move back home. The proposal that does come later is just extra glaze on the limoncello pound cake, if you will. 

Before I Let Go could be considered a slow burn, because Yasmen and Josiah don't kiss for the first time since divorcing until well past the book's halfway point. The aforementioned sex memories occur throughout, the tension between them is constantly building then receding then building again, but the actual making out and boning might feel delayed to some readers. Thankfully, it didn't feel that way to me. While not a holiday-themed romance novel, I think having this book released in November was spot-on, and me reading it during this time of year helped me enjoy it even more, because much of the progression in Yasmen and Josiah's romantic rekindling is connected to the holiday season (especially Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve). So if you're interested in stories set amongst Black people in Atlanta, divorced couples getting back together, Black entrepreneurs, soul food recipes, mothers and daughters butting heads, grief surrounding children and/or maternal figures, treatments for depression and anxiety, or love stories that are tangentially-related to the holidays, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"I'm ready to reclaim the space that loss and shit luck tried to take from me" (13).
"It's so affirming, even that simplest sprinkling of praise. It makes me realize how arid I've been inside, how badly I've needed watering" (113).
"There was just something... liberating? Freeing? Right about telling this stranger everything. Nothing changed, but somehow I felt better. I don't completely understand it, but after all the shit of the last few years, feeling better is worth something" (146).
"What if the most right moments tonight were the ones we shared alone in that cellar when our lips almost met? When our hearts beat like talking drums through our chests?... Could it be that what I thought were ashes were actually embers, waiting to be rekindled?" (284). 

"Horny and highly favored!" (313).
"'Live long enough,' Dr. Musa says softly, 'and you'll lose people, things. We just need to learn how to deal with it in ways that aren't isolating or destructive. You have to decide if being afraid of losing Yasmen again is worth never having her again'" (361).

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