BOOK REVIEW: The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano
When Melody Grace McCartney was six years old, she and her parents witnessed an act of violence so brutal that it changed their lives forever. The federal government lured them into the Witness Protection Program with the promise of safety, and they went gratefully. But the program took Melody’s name, her home, her innocence, and, ultimately, her family. She’s been May Adams, Karen Smith, Anne Johnson, and countless others–everyone but the one person she longs to be: herself. So when the feds spirit her off to begin yet another new life in another town, she’s stunned when a man confronts her and calls her by her real name. Jonathan Bovaro, the mafioso sent to hunt her down, knows her, the real her, and it’s a dangerous thrill that Melody can’t resist. He’s insistent that she’s just a pawn in the government’s war against the Bovaro family. But can she trust her life and her identity to this vicious stranger whose acts of violence are legendary?
Whew. Well, I’ll start by saying this book is loved by many and comes with tons of recommendations and high marks from those who have read and reviewed it. I, for one, was CERTAIN I would love this book. Initially I was drawn in the cover and title, then the premise pretty much sealed the deal. I read a few pages and new I had to have it. In the scheme of my to-read list, this was the SECOND title I most wanted to read from my “print” pile (mostly I’m reading on Kindle these days). So, all in all, I really had high hopes for this. I’m definitely glad I gave this one a read, but I have to say it maybe didn’t deserve the priority I gave it (for me).
WHAT I LIKED
First of all, David Cristofano has a brilliant mind and doesn’t stray from letting it wander to dark places. Some of the descriptions of things the Bovaro family have done are overly graphic. Not really needed for the genre, though I think it’s great that it evokes fear. Could have gotten the same results without being graphic. This is both a criticism and a compliment.
The writing was clean overall and the writing style was easy to read. This is another one of those books where the writing doesn’t get in the way, and you can just get lost in the story–if other factors don’t pull you out of it.
There were some laugh out loud moments as I read, one so clever that I had to make a note of it. In this particular scene, Melody and her captor are getting a little too comfortable with each other (if you know what I mean *wink*) while waiting for a masseur to come in. Well, when he walks in and, uh, interrupts what they are almost doing, they both get embarrassed and tell the masseur they are done. to which the masseur says, “Are you sure? That looked more like the middle.” Light humor like this always wins me over in a story.
One of the best scenes in the book for me was when Jonathan nearly renders a guy unconscious at a bar, trying to save Melody (when she wasn’t in any real danger). It really shows he’s not the most stable person (and obviously neither is Melody). Then, afterward, you see a tender moment between them. A little introspection could have really deepened the meaning of this moment and added layers to both characters, but although that opportunity was missed the scene spoke enough for itself to be one of the stronger scenes moving their relationship forward.
Another big PLUS point in my book was the author’s efforts of characterization. He allowed different characters to express different, convincing opinions and experiences regarding the WITSEC program. This gave the story depth and made the character believable. And although I didn’t like the main character (more on that in a bit) I still think her character was well drawn. There were no one-dimensional characters in this book.
I definitely kept reading without wanting to put the book down too often; the story really had my interest.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
I hate writing this part of a review, especially when I know I have a lot of nit-picky things to say. Anyone can nitpick any book to death. Nothing is perfect. But this is why when I read I don’t try to find things wrong. However, sometimes some things really bug you and pull you out a story, and unfortunately that happened a few times in this story for me.
My first complaints are pretty superficial. The more I read, the more I felt the cover didn’t match the mood to the story. By the end, it just felt all wrong. That said, I can’t make a better suggestion myself. I just got a sense from the cover that the story would be much different than what it was.
The cover had also said: “How do you know who you are if you can’t reveal who you’ve been?” For me, this was not the best way to convey the idea the author was going for. Maybe meant this more in terms of not knowing who you would have been if you’d been able to be honest about who you are with others. But you are still who you are even if other’s don’t know who that is.
The punctuation was inconsistent as well (especially where commas and comma splices are concerned). Also there were a few sentences that didn’t read clearly, even after I read them a few times to try to follow the meaning. This wasn’t often and didn’t interfere with my understanding of the book. Also, the excessive use of “a little” started to stand out to me more and more as I read on. (One time he “cracked his fingers a little”. Why not just crack them?) In one case, “I laugh a little” was used twice on ONE page. I don’t normally look for this stuff but it stood out.
I also noticed several point of view slips throughout the manuscript. One such example would be “The sound of fabric sliding against my legs makes Jonathan’s Adam’s apple bob a few times.” First of all, a few times? He swallowed more than once in the time it took her to slide her underwear off? Second, how does she know why his Adam’s apple bobbed, unless she’s a mind reader? I don’t mind characters being assumptive, however, Melody seems to ALWAYS get it right. If she’s going to make assumptions to why people are doing things, I feel like I need to see her get it wrong sometimes, otherwise it’s not believable to me and it feels more like the author is “leading”. To be honest, though, a lot of these things are things Cristofano’s editors should have caught. No writer can get it perfect on their own. Sometimes we’re so into getting the story down that we aren’t as smooth as we could be. That’s what our editors are supposed to help us with. But that’s not to excuse authors from putting in their fair share of the work, too. I’m merely pointing out that this slipped by a lot of people, not just the author. Also, I’m extremely difficult to please so it’s entirely possible I’m hung up something no other reader will ever notice.
The main character, Melody . . . well, let’s just say she’s not my favorite character in fiction. She’s a VERY REAL character, and for that I give Mr. Cristofano props, though sometimes her actions/thoughts seemed more like something a guy would do/think, though at no point had she been painted as a tomboy in the slightest. I know this isn’t “PC” to say, and I’m not trying to pigeon hole gender roles here. I’m just speaking from my experience of men and women and what, based on that experience, rings true to me. Other than that, Melody unfortunately was gifted with two character flaws that I hate more than any other character flaws: lying and manipulation. And since she gets mad at other’s for lying and manipulating, I suppose you could throw some hypocrisy in there as well. Other character flaws of hers were more forgivable (immaturity, for example, and even her occasional stupidity). See, this isn’t really a criticism though, because that are unbearable character flaws to me may be minor to someone else. I thought it was GOOD she had flaws, speaking from creative writing standpoint. But from a reading standpoint, I just personally didn’t like the main character because of what her flaws were.
Another huge problem I had was that a lot of the character’s motivations were not tangible to me, and sometimes this resulted in the plot feeling a little forced and slightly TOO far-fetched (despite there being a possibility for this plot to be completely plausible). In one part of the story, Melody says that she likes Jonathan trusts she will be there when he returns, like he’s self-assured enough to know she’ll be waiting, even though she was pulled away the last time. This makes no sense. She didn’t leave last time on her own will, so how can he know if she’ll still be there this time? And obviously he trusts she wouldn’t leave on her own at this point. I couldn’t really understand why she even went with Sean that second time. She didn’t even fathom for a second he might be lying about bringing her back by five, or trying to trick her. Maybe Melody is just a more trusting person than I am, but at times it came across as being stupid. I’d say naive, but really, with the life she has had, naivety is NOT her problem here.
The romance between Jonathan and Melody didn’t feel natural or logical, and there was nothing to bridge that gap between feeling something against all logic for me. I needed some moments of revelation to their motivations to understand them. Toward the end, it felt like some explanations were tacked on, but I never FELT it in the story the way I would have liked. For example, I didn’t find it believable that Jonathan was quitting smoking for Melody, who he had just met in person 3 days ago. If it’s because he loves her from the years he spent stalking her since she was a CHILD (yeah, that’s kind of weird, too, IMO) then why didn’t he quit smoking sooner? And she never even asked him to quit for her. I didn’t feel a real connection with why Jonathan was acting as he did with her, and Melody doesn’t seem to think anything of this. At no time does she question his intentions, nor does he question hers, even when things look bad. There was room for so much more conflict in this book, and not forced conflict, but needed conflict that would have existed if these characters were having natural reaction and motivations. That’s not to say they HAVE to have common motivations, but since they didn’t, I really needed those motivations shown to me in order to suspend disbelief. And many of those motivations weren’t shown at all, while others were only glossed over toward the end of the book (when I was already annoyed).
So when the back cover had a blurb from PEOPLE that said “The emotions . . . ring deliciously, scarily true.” I had to think, “I don’t agree.” I’m not saying the emotions were horrible, but I wouldn’t list that as one of the more notable qualities of this book.
Some other little things that bothered me:
- Melody thinking her nails will be ruined “because she wants to dig her fingernails into the side of Sean’s neck”. (When Sean’s not even there at that point!)
- A bit of narration by Melody that reads . . . “tilts his head as if to say: Yeah, yeah, I know, but I’m just a marshal and you need to complain to someone else” . . . That is a LOT for a HEAD TILT to say.
- When the WITSEC marshals say Jonathan Bovaro has manipulated her quite a bit and she says “no one has manipulated me”. I don’t by it. THEY have manipulated her. She even infers she feels that way in other parts of the story. So why not respond to say, “If anyone has manipulated me, it’s you guys.” ? ? ?
- If Melody is so afraid of Jonathan’s potential rage, why is she running back to him? Does she think she’d rather be dead than live a life in WITSEC? If so, why not reveal that in this story to make her motivations clear? Also, did she even consider that WTISEC was lying to her about who committed that violent crime? Perhaps it WASN’T Johnny.
- Why did the spa ladies say Melody was ‘simply lovely’. What is the purpose in that? As far as they know, she skipped out with another man during the time she should have spent being pampered at the expense of her boyfriend. I think they’d have another term to use for that, from what they must have imagined transpired, and I don’t think that term is “lovely”.
- “Jonathan giggles” I’m not saying a guy can’t giggle, but in my world, laughter of any kind from a mafia member is not described as a “giggle”. Odd pet peeve, I know.
- She has NO reaction when Jonathan admits to the damage he did to Gregory Morrison? Really? I understand ONE side of her motivation, but it doesn’t hit her what he’s really capable of or make her have to think about what it then really means to get involved with him?
- The McConnaughy thing was annoying for ME because I don’t always put celebrity faces to names (and I know I’m not the only one) so I had no idea what Sean was supposed to look like since I don’t know what McConnaughy looks like.
- Melody narrates: “a softness not known to my skin since I was a toddler…” She remembers, at 27, what her skin felt like as a 3 or 4 year old? Things like this pull me out of the story. I know it’s probably more my issue than an issue with the actual book, but hey, like I said, I’m picky!
At one point in the story, they take her to a WITSEC headquarters type location that is conveniently close to the hotel she needed to return to by five. I wondered if there was more than one of those facilities or if this was the best coincidence ever. I also found it unbelievable that they let her go, since they had the ability to prevent her from leaving. I would think at this point they might wonder if she had Stockholm syndrome, and make her visit and on-site psychologist (that they say they have) in order to determine if she is making the life-risking decision to leave WITSEC in a healthy frame of mind. What it comes down to, is maybe Melody does have Stockholm syndrome or something else is impairing her judgement, and I’d be okay with that. But when everyone else is going along with the flow, it starts to seem like less of a reflection of real things that happen int he real world, and more of an attempt to move the story along without worrying about logic. That aside, by letting her go, the conflict is also diminished where it could have been intensified.
Some of the dialogue in the story didn’t ring true. On more than one occasion, I found myself thinking: “NO ONE says stuff like that out loud.” You know, but maybe some people do? But certainly not ALL people do. As much as I love dialogue, I’ll take less of it if it means what is there is natural. It wasn’t so much the language itself that was unnatural so much as it was WHAT was being said/the ideas that were being expressed.
I know I was incessantly picky and critical in this review, but that’s just because all of my complaints were little small things, so it takes up a lot of space to explain them all. I did in fact still enjoy this book a great deal. It kept me entertained on my flight to and from visiting my family. The ending, though. BOY. Urgh! In one sense I like that it wasn’t a perfect ending, but it was unnecessarily NOT happy ending. With how it all ended, it seemed to me that they totally could have had a happy ending. I also can’t see Melody getting that ring as being the same thing as Sean having one. In my head, I had to rewrite a different ending just to be happy with the story. But hey, it’s not my story and I don’t get to decide how it ends. My vision is irrelevant here, and I’m OK with that. I was just bummed. I also felt the final conflict scene didn’t play out logically and wasn’t as big as it could have been. Not necessarily anti-climatic, but simply not as climatic as it could have been. All this said, I do think most people would like this book, as most people won’t obsess over the silly things that bug me. If you give it a try, let me know what you think!
Rebecca Hamilton is a USA Today bestselling Paranormal Fantasy author. Her bestselling Forever Girl Series is available at online retailers and has been optioned for film with Witten Pictures. The Hungarian edition has been published with IPC books and the German edition has been published with Darkiss, a Harlequin imprint.