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'The Precious One' Has Love At Its Heart

Sometimes when I'm talking about romance novels, I try to explain that one of the main reasons I love a good love story — indeed, why many romance fans love them — is because they give us a sense of hope. If these characters can overcome obstacles, become better people, and prove that they deserve each other, then love prevails. Love can change the world.

But just what makes a romance novel? Is it the entwined couple on the cover? Or can it be a book with a huge romantic arc that just doesn't happen to be shelved with romance at the bookstore? Because authors like Marisa de los Santos, Rainbow Rowell, Joshilyn Jackson and Jojo Moyes are often the ones I turn to when I'm trying to convince more literary readers to give romance a try. And then, when someone's read the book and loved it, I tell them they've been reading a romance novel: At the core of the story, there is love.

If you whittle down the plot of de los Santos' newest book, The Precious One, into a sentence or two, you'd get something like this: After her estranged father suffers a heart attack, Eustacia "Taisy" Cleary goes back to the town where she grew up and unexpectedly becomes embroiled in the lives of her father's other wife and daughter — the new family for whom he abandoned her 17 years ago. She also reconnects with the high school boyfriend who was scorched in her family's implosion.

And that's an accurate description, but it doesn't do anything to convey de los Santos' talent for quirky characters and mesmerizing storytelling.

Taisy's distant, disapproving father Wilson Cleary – while not a major character — casts a shadow over everyone and everything in the book. Taisy and her twin brother Marcus refer to him as "Wilson," not Dad, and Marcus can't believe it when Taisy actually agrees to come home. Once she gets there, she's surprised by the warm welcome from artist Caro, Wilson's second wife – but Willow, their cherished daughter, lashes out.

The chapters are split between Taisy and Willow, which helps build sympathy for the scornful Willow: We see her struggling with the family's issues, complicated by garden-variety teen angst, a high intellect and social floundering. Homeschooled her whole life, Willow ends up in private school after her father's heart attack. "To anyone out there who believes, the way I did, that you live your life on a plane above Darwinian adaptation," she says, "step foot inside a school classroom for the first time ever at the age of sixteen."

Meanwhile, Taisy discovers that her high school boyfriend Ben is back in town, helping his father run his nursery and landscape business. Taisy has never truly recovered from losing him (though she was the one who initiated their breakup, it was engineered by her father, who hated Ben). Now, years later, he is resistant to the idea of any relationship at all, even more a romantic one.

Ultimately Willow and Taisy — and Caro, in a potently hazy way — create a new reality for themselves and the people they love, mostly in spite of Wilson, who, having set everyone in motion, thinks he can command them to stop again once they go in uncomfortable directions.

De los Santos writes with the lyricism of a poet, a keen and clever wit and a wise, perceptive eye toward the best and worst of human nature. The Precious One reminds us that love, romance, family and relationships are all powerful things that come to us in many ways. Sometimes they're magic, immediately right and brilliant. Sometimes they blossom slowly but gracefully. And sometimes we have to fight for them when we'd never thought we'd want to, with tools we're learning on the run.

Overall, though, love prevails. It's love that changes the world.

Bobbi Dumas is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis. She writes, blogs and reviews for Kirkus Media, and celebrates romance and women's fiction on her website ReadARomanceMonth.com

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobbi Dumas