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Dark Water - Laura McNeal Blown away by beautiful writing & aching story

In Laura McNeal's DARK WATER, fifteen-year-old Pearl and her mother find themselves living in a rundown cottage on her uncle's avocado ranch after her father leaves. With her mother withering under stress and her cousin Robby hatching vengeful plans against his father, Pearl notices Amiel, one of the new migrant workers. Pearl's tentative relationship with Amiel pushes boundaries, and for the first time in her life, she's making up lies about where's she been and with whom. When wildfires strike the California hills, Pearl's wish to secretly protect Amiel may have tragic consequences.

When starting DARK WATER, I expected good things because I knew it had been a 2010 National Book Award nominee. I was not prepared, however, to be blown away as much as I was. McNeal's writing was effortless and smooth, and her descriptions were striking and evocative without feeling overwrought. While the first chapter heavily foreshadowed much of the events to come, this was one of the few times I've felt this technique added to the story. Instead of making me disappointed in being able to predict the ending, this foreknowledge added another aching layer of melancholy to the story as it unfolded. The ending of the story, while bittersweet and sad, leaves readers with a glimmer of hope about what can happen after unforgiveable mistakes have been made.

Though marketed as a forbidden romance, DARK WATER is much more about family, class, and the irreversible consequences of one's actions. The highlights of this story were the lovingly depicted and convoluted family relationships. Pearl, her mother, Uncle Hoyt, and Robby are all fully realized characters. The details of their interactions rang true, both in their daily conversations and patterns and also in their larger, grander gestures of connection. Pearl came across as achingly real, and while she made decisions that made her less likable at times, her choices were soundly authentic as those of a teen girl. Even though Amiel was less well-drawn, his quiet role in the story also remained important. Others have found flaws with this book, including the more limited development of Amiel and the sometimes slow pacing. Even though these things did exist, they didn't pull me out of the story; rather, I thought the pacing and the choices regarding Amiel's character served the story well.

When combined, the beautiful and descriptive language, the wonderful character development, and an engaging plot made DARK WATER the best book I've read so far this year. I look forward to reading future books by McNeal as well as picking up those that she has already co-authored with her husband, including CROOKED, CRUSHED, and ZIPPED.

Note: This review refers to an advance reader's copy.