But what happens when one's reputation goes right down the toilet and no matter how that may have happened or how others' opinion may be built on misinformation or outright lies, it still hurts and in some contexts, is virtually impossible to change.
This is the background of Desiree Holt's novel Once Burned. It is a story that begins in a small town--everyone knows everyone else--and a heroine, Cassie Fitzgerald, who is the youngest daughter and whose parents really don't "see" her because they are so enraptured by Cassie's older sister. Diane lives large, plays fast and loose with her own reputation, with the feelings of her parents and those within the community, and essentially does what she pleases. She is a part of a crowd of high schoolers who keep the local law enforcement officers on their toes. One of Diane's crowd is a guy with whom she has been having an on-again-off-again affair named Griffin Hunter. Yet in a strange turn of fate, Cassie encounters Griffin one summer evening, and he confesses that the only girl in town he has ever cared about, truly cared about, is her. Having had a crush on Griff Hunter for years, Cassie succumbs to his advances--she is now a junior in college--and for a brief two nights, they are lovers. They agree to continue their affair when she returns from visiting relatives in a few weeks. And then she receives the news that Griff has married her sister Diane.
Now it is six years later. Cassie has become a news reporter in Tampa, Florida, having never returned to her home town. Her sister has been murdered, her father had subsequently started drinking heavily and committed suicide, and now her mother has died. The authorities believed that Griff had murdered Diane, but he had an airtight alibi. Yet, in the general opinion of the towns people, Griff was the murder. Out of necessity she is once again at her parents' home, rushing to settle the estate, sell the house, and return to Tampa without seeing Griff. It was not to be. As the only landscaper in town, he was the only person who was available to restore the yard around the house so it could be shown and sold. When they finally meet, they realize that the old sparks are still there and Cassie realizes that no matter what anyone says, she can never believe that Griff murdered her sister. She cannot get anyone to tell her anything about her sister's death or, for that matter, her father's suicide. Her news reporter instincts begin to hum and she decides that she will stick around long enough to find her sister's murder(s).
The core of this tale is the love story, protracted though it may be, between Cassie and Griffin. The curious part about this is the pressure the community brings to bear in order to break them up. It's almost as if it becomes a community project to demean and destroy this man. It is heartwarming to see Cassie's inner strength as she stands up to old family friends, her family doctor, her parents' attorney, the local banker that has always handled her parents' investments, etc. And as she and Griff became more involved and she learned more and more about him, she began to understand the kind of hatred he had endured for six years and the strength of character he had displayed through that miserable time.
This is a novel about forgiveness and renewal. It is also a story that talks openly about the flip sides of that emotion we call love--how disappointment can almost turn love into a kind of hate. In Cassie's case, the love had always been there. It is also a story that reveals Cassie's maturation process--how she moves from caring about what others think of her to a point where her relationship with Griff is more important than what anyone else says. Sometimes that can be foolish, but given the hypocritical relationship the towns people had had with her during her growing up years--when everyone was enamored with Diane and really weren't even aware that Cassie was there--she was more than willing to stuff the community's concerns in favor of keeping Griff in her life.
This was another really enjoyable Holt offering that deals honestly with human emotion and relationships. It is well-written with edgy and totally realistic characters. The town of Stoneham could have been any Small Town, USA, and certainly reminded me of some I have known personally. It is a very adept look at the prejudices that are often formed and perpetrated among small-minded people whose boundaries are often no farther afield than the town limits. I found this story to be very compelling with a great deal of social commentary, intended or unintended, I can't say. In any event, this is a very, very good read and one that will remain on my "to be read again" list for some time to come. I give this novel the rating of 4.25 out of 5.