A Light in the Forest is emotive, touching, and heartbreaking small-town fiction with gripping plot and lots of heavy topics.
A Light in the Forest by Melissa Payne
Publication Date : December 13, 2022
Publisher : Lake Union Publishing
Read Date : November 18, 2022
Genre : Fiction
Pages : 332
Tea for this book : Ginger Honey + Peppermint Tea
Disclaimer – Many thanks to author for ARC
Other books I have read by the author-
From Melissa Payne, bestselling author of The Night of Many Endings, comes an emotional and suspenseful novel about the weight of secrets and the healing power of friends and family.
Vega Jones escapes an abusive relationship with nothing but her two-month-old baby and the van she grew up in. Her destination is a small Ohio town her late vagabond mother left years ago. It’s one full of nobodies, her mother warned. That makes it the ideal refuge for Vega to lie low, feel safe, and maybe learn more about a past her mother never spoke of.
Vega warms to the town and to new acquaintances like Heff, the young deputy and artist who prefers his yard art to actual policing, and empathetic Eve, a local farmer whose near-death experience gave her more than just her life back. But even in this welcoming community, there’s an undercurrent of something unsettled, talk of a tragedy that unfolded in the woods years ago, and a mystery connected to Vega in ways she couldn’t have anticipated.
As a mother on the run and following a path of mounting risks and illuminating secrets, Vega discovers that even during the darkest of times, there’s light in unexpected places.
A Light in the Forest is a touching and emotive fiction with many layers and heavy topics. It starts with Vega on the run from her abusive and manipulative boyfriend with her two-month-old son. She spent her life as a nomad with her mother, doing handiwork and helping women in abusive situations. But now that she finds herself in the same situation as women she and her mother helped, making her run, it shatters her dream of settling down and growing roots. As her mother died only a year ago and with no other person in life to support her, she could think of one place to go, Crystal, Ohio her mother visited once and said it’s a town full of nobodies and bullies. But as she comes to Crystal she finds the place has more good than just bullies, she can discover more about her mother, and it might give her new start but danger is not far behind.
The story is about belongingness, acceptance, resilience, courage, past trauma, community, family, and friendship. There are many trigger topics like, domestic violence, sexual abuse, animal cruelty, near-death experience, homophobia, and transphobia.
Writing is gripping, emotive, and heartfelt with dual timelines and multiple perspectives. Past was set in 1995 told from Donna’s POV making the plot more dark, mysterious, and atmospheric while present was told from Vega and Eve’s POV and there is warmth and tenderness along with anxious feeling in this part. I loved past chapters more and it was interesting to compare past and present setting of Crystal. This is character-driven story and there are many characters here. Vega, Eve and Donna are the heart of the story.
Vega is strong, brave, resilient and a survivor. I rooted for her from the first page. I liked how initial chapter introduced her, letting readers know how she lived her life and relationship with her mother, how much she loved her but at the same time resented her for not staying at one place, and connecting with people and also how she ended up with man like Zach and failed to see or rather ignored all the red flags her mother taught in loss and grief, desperation to settle, and to chase away loneliness she felt after her mother’s death.
I liked she wasn’t completely blind and was following her mother’s advice by keeping her papers and important thing hidden in her mother’s van which made her escape fast. I could understand her dilemma about whether to run or not, to give Zach a second chance or not, was her mother always right or if she could be wrong and most importantly how she would raise her son alone when she felt clueless as a new mother and didn’t know how to make her colicky kid comfortable and relieve his pain.
I loved how coming to Crystal not just changed her situation but her too. It was amazing to see how slowly she started to see help from people not as charity but as genuine love, how they gave her work and safety and sense of community she always wanted. Not just that but it also brought her closer to her mother and after knowing her past she could understand her better, making her grateful and proud of having the strongest mother who also had help to survive and move forward.
Eve is trans, 40 yrs old woman who returned to Crystal few years ago. She almost died in Crystal when she was a teenager. Her near-death experience gave her visions and changed her perspective towards death and life and people as she could see what is going to come in their life. Like Vega I also questioned more than once why would she return to the town who never treated her well, is still not accepting her, and are being cruel, mean and rude to her. The reasons she gave were understandable and as book progressed they made sense. I could see her connection with Vega and all characters as well. I admired her kindness, ability to make people feel safe and belong, her resilience, and her courage.
Donna is most brave of all. She is a fighter. It was heartbreaking to imagine in what condition she might be living in her own home and how brave she was to fight back and run away, found her own safe place and people who helped her survive, whom she could call family. It was sad she couldn’t just stay at one place and what happened to her and Ethan was most horrible.
Secondary characters- Terra, Betty, Carl, Heff are just as important and amazing as main characters. Terra is a fighter and survivor. Betty and Carl are godsends. I loved Heff. He was such nice, gentle, empathetic, and kind person. His penchant for slashes was first thing that made me smile in the book. He and Carl were such a relief from all self-righteous controlling jerks and this book had lot of them.
It’s not just men who are bad in this book. There is Donna’s mom who is worst of all men mentioned as she let her husband sexually abuse her own daughter and when Donna talked about it to her, she punished her and said it’s Donna who is bad. She protected Donna’s little sister but not Donna. I can’t understand how she can be so biased. I tried to think of situation from her perspective but either way she was wrong and coward. What shocked me most is she never felt guilt or regret about it which shattered my heart for Donna.
There are so many emotional moments that got tears in my eyes but at the same time there is tenderness and warmth as well. All serious topics were handled sensitively, they weren’t graphic or descriptive to make it uncomfortable to read. Small town of Crystal and its community worked really well here. I liked to see how much this town changed over the time, how good remaining people helped each other except few who never changed nor wanted to.
Mystery wasn’t very hard. Most things were easy to figure out by past and present chapters but small things like what exactly happened in the end with Donna kept me reading the book and by the time climax came I could clearly see it, the only surprising point was regarding what happened to Donna’s father. I mean I knew but not exactly how and who.
Climax in present was most surprising than the past timeline. There are some heartfelt and heartbreaking moments in this last few chapters. I hated what happened to Eve’s barn. I wasn’t expecting that nor see it coming but I knew Eve’s vision was coming true and when it did I feared for characters. I liked how they all reacted quickly and turned the ‘could be terrible’ end into a satisfying one.
Why 4 stars-
Some dialogues and parts, to be specific, Vega’s desperation to settle down and part that explained her situation in the initial chapters were a little repetitive.
Overall, A Light in the Forest is emotive, heartbreaking and touching small town fiction with gripping plot and lots of heavy topics. The previous two books I read by the author- Memories in the Drift and The Night of Many Endings are the best.
I definitely recommend this book if you like,
Dark and mysterious plot
Book with many serious/trigger topics
Theme of belonging and resilience
Interesting characters with lots of baggage
Small town setting
Dual time line and multiple perspectives
Sense of community
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