The back cover blurb of Renovation absolutely captured my imagination and fired my appetite. It ends like this: “Now with the lives of people he cares for on the line, JK he must fight to control the abilities he never wanted to hunt down a killer.” Fabulous.
Renovation is an interesting murder mystery held together by a romance arc. It’s got a riveting premise. The writing is skilled enough, and the plot is solid, But with all its virtues this book was a miss for me. Hence my middle-of-the-scale 3 stars.
As an 18 year-old, JK was playing hockey on the lake when he fell through and died. He’s resuscitated, but when he recovers he is acutely psychic, uncontrollably absorbing the emotionally charged memories stored in anything he touches with his hands. He has psychotic episodes. His parents keep him medicated and locked in the basement for years.
Now at 28, he’s been rescued from his parents’ basement by Jesse, his pushy and guilt-ridden/over-protective brother, who is a cop. Jesse’s wife is a doctor who provides unspecified medication for JK. JK has a job now, renovating houses.
JK must wear gloves all the time to avoid being assaulted by the memories stored in the objects he touches. They could pitch him into a psychotic event as he relives the memory he has picked up. He still has psychotic episodes during which he must be handcuffed to his bed to keep him from hurting himself or others. He gives his lover a black eye during one of them.
The gloves take on the dimension of a fetish. Which gloves should JK wear for this occasion? Nitrile? Silk? Cotton? The fascination with them was unsettling for this reader.
Mark Twain once said that the only difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be believable. As this book unfolded, I fell out of belief in the characters, and ultimately felt very little empathy for any of them.
For me this book raises three uncomfortable questions.
1) Does an author have the right to paint a character however she/he wants? Yes, if the character is believable and her/his motives are clear. The most extreme example of an unbelievable character in this story (and there were several) was Zeke. He owns a dojo and offers training in martial art, yet he is unable to control his violent and very physical temper. He is, in other terms, a rage-aholic. He is a significant character, not just a throw-away caricature like the bad dojo master in Karate Kid. Would you send your child to a dojo like Zeke’s? Cast him as a disgraced martial arts expert, sure, but owner of a dojo? Not believable.
2) How “broken” is too broken to believably achieve a happy ending? I realize that the trope of the impossibly broken protagonist is very popular, and appeals to our rescuer/maternal instincts. Everyone deserves a happy ending, we tell each other. That sounds great, but it’s not true. A happy ending has to be earned, and it has to be believable, at very least within the constraints of the story.
JK’s parents kept him locked in the basement. For years. Think about that. JK has psychotic episodes. He’s regularly overwhelmed by his psychic sensings. It’s a tough stretch for me to believe he’s relationship material even for the bravest among us. The renovation metaphor, rebuilding a house and rebuilding a life, is perfect, but for me it didn’t get all the way through.
3) When does conflict begin to detract from the story it’s supposed to animate? Somewhere, varying for each reader, there is a line between edgy dialogue and tedious verbal abuse. I get bored when characters are consistently mean to each other for no real reason. To my sensibilities, the author carefully choreographed dialogue and plot elements to maximize conflict, but at the expense of creating characters I believed or cared about. Instead, I encountered an astonishing lack of kindness or compassion, even between the lovers, until late in the book. By which time it was too little too late for me.
I hope some readers, those who enjoy or at least aren’t put off by the elements I objected to here, will choose to give Renovation a try. You may have a completely different experience of it. I think Lane Robins is a skilled writer, and I’ll be looking to read her next book.