Rating: 4.75 stars
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Chance Irving grew up mostly on the streets of New York in the early 1900s. After running away from the orphanage where he was abandoned by his parents, Chance got by mostly on thieving, odd jobs, and his good looks from the age of seven. During this time he experienced both the highs of having a temporary family and some place to belong, along with the lows of losing those he loved and falling into drug use, too much casual sex, and self-destruction. Chance’s life on the streets shaped him. He became stubborn and grumpy, afraid of love or closeness, and feels completely unworthy of deserving better than his lot in life.
In 1923, at 25, Chance recognizes his life is going nowhere and that he can’t just keep stealing, doing drugs, and sleeping around. So Chance enlists in the French Foreign Legion and heads for the deserts of Africa, hoping the change will help him find the man he wants to be. After once again proving unwilling to follow orders or get along, Chance is sent to a new Commandant who has a reputation for handling those soldiers that no one else can. And this is when Chance’s world changes, the day he meets Jacky Valentine.
Jacky is like no one Chance has ever met. Always smiling, loving and caring, inspiring incredible dedication among his men. Unlike the other military leaders Chance has encountered, Jacky doesn’t rule with endless marching and a heavy hand, but with inspiring his men and figuring out what they need to be motivated. Jacky would do anything for his men, including “adopting” three young soldiers who each have a hard luck story of their own. Chance is drawn to Jacky almost immediately and much to his disbelief, Jacky feels the same way about him. But even as Chance begins to hope that there might be a better future for him, he still has trouble giving himself over completely. His feelings of self-worth make it hard for him to accept that he deserves this love and that he has any right to hope for a future between them. So Chance continues to challenge Jacky, acting out and getting himself in trouble, until the day he finally realizes just how much Jacky means to him and how much he really wants to be a better man.
Oh, this was such a good story — romantic, heartwarming, with a lovely epic feel. And once again Cochet gives us a historical that feels so rooted in the time period and allows the reader to really experience the world our characters inhabit. Chance’s early years are on the streets of New York, many as part of the theater community. Cochet writes such vivid descriptions of the city and the growth of Broadway. I could really imagine the bustling backstage and the daily life of the theater folk. When the story moves to the desert and military life, once again we get wonderful detail on life in the Legion. The characters talk and act totally of the time period and as a reader I felt like I was right there with them.
We are given the story from Chance’s POV which allows us to really understand where he has been and the growth and maturity that comes over the course of the story. Although only a short part of the book takes place in New York, his experiences with both love and loss, being alone and being part of a family, shape Chance and make him the man he is when he meets Jacky. And that is a man who is both tough and afraid, who needs love but is scared to believe in it. Chance is ashamed of the person he has been, but can’t believe that can (or deserves to) be someone better. And I think this is what makes the romance between he and Jacky so lovely. Because Jacky cares for him unconditionally and wants him for much more than his looks. Jacky is hurt by some of Chance’s behavior, but it is clear that he will always stand by him. He believes that Chance can be a better man, and through his love, eventually so does Chance.
I loved the many layers of this book. On one hand, it is love story between Jacky and Chance. It is also the story of Chance’s personal growth and redemption, finding himself and realizing the person he can be. And it is also the story of finding a family, even a non-traditional one. Jacky has taken these three young soldiers, Johnnie, Bobby, and Alexander, under his wing. They are quite young (between 16-19) and each ended up in the Legion after the rejection of their own families for being gay. All three have been deeply affected by this rejection in different ways — Johnnie with belligerence and anger, Bobbie by barely speaking. It is Jacky’s unconditional love and acceptance that allows these boys to grow in confidence, come out of their shells, and learn to be hopeful for a positive future. The five men form a tight bond, creating an unconventional family that is deeply committed to one another.
Most of the story is recounted by Chance as a flashback in a traditional narrative style, with the exception of the very beginning and end where he talks directly to the reader from a point in the future. I’ll admit I found the first few pages a little confusing and had some trouble getting my bearings. But once the book moves to New York and the story really gets started those issues went away and the book moved swiftly, keeping my interest and attention throughout.
I really liked this one, more and more as the story went on. I loved watching Chance’s growth, figuring out that he deserved happiness and allowing himself to reach for it. I loved Jacky and his endearing goofiness, his huge heart, and his total committment to those that count on him. And I really loved the message that everyone deserves love and security and a family, even if it is not the one you started off with. This is a lovely story, sweetly romantic, heartwarming, and fascinating. I highly recommend it.