Overall Grade: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
It’s been twenty-four hours since I finished reading L.J. Shen’s In the Unlikely Event, and I’ve needed this time to try to find the words for this review. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Shen as an author. Her fanbase, L.J.’s Sassy Sparrows (of which I include myself), is a rabid fanbase. I’ve been reflecting on this phenomenon. Yes, I believe her street team is largely responsible for creating this fervor. But it’s really something more. It’s the care and craftsmanship she puts into her writing that elicits the virulent response you find in her Facebook group. People want her books as soon as possible. Why?
Usually, it’s her evocation of the alpha-heavy hero. She has this way of bringing this type of hero to his knees at the feet of a heroine who carries an inner strength redolent of a warrior. He’s changed forever, and he and she find their happily ever after, even with his continued alpha tendencies. We find this over and over again in her books, and her storytelling is loved by many. She changes the stories, she changes the characters, and she changes their endings, but this thread, this distinct Shen voice, can be found in her work. And this voice resonates with her readers; her voice is the “thing” that keeps people rabid.
Enter In the Unlikely Event, her newest book. She warned her readers and her most devout fans that this book was different. She didn’t lie. Like I said at the beginning of this review, I needed some space and time from it because, while there is a melody that flows through it that is distinctly Shen, this isn’t typical L.J. Shen. It’s an iteration, but it does the thing that all of her other books do: invests you in her story in the most emotional of ways. This is a “several shades of Shen” tome.
There is this moment in a Shen book when your heart drops to your stomach. I’ve read almost every one of her books, and this moment is distinct in each of them. Usually, the hero makes a choice that indelibly changes the relationship between the hero and heroine. Honestly, I think we, her readers, live for this moment. It makes us feel alive and connected emotionally to the story. In the Unlikely Event does this same thing. In fact, this moment begins fairly early in the story. My heart was pounding, and I felt nauseous as our hero, Mal, looked at the heroine, Aurora “Rory,” with disdain and revenge in his eyes. I died a little bit because Shen had crafted their connection earlier in the book so perfectly that this moment felt like a knife to my gut. These moments continue throughout the book, and they’re a constant reminder of Shen’s ability to emotionally invest us in her storytelling. This is her gift, her genius. This is one of the reasons her readers obsess over her upcoming books. It’s why I obsess over her writing.
Unlike her past books, Malachy “Mal” doesn’t read like her typical heroes. I wouldn’t say he is necessarily “alpha” although he has aspects of this in his characterization. Instead, there is a sensitivity and humor to Mal’s character. He’s not typical Shen. He’s more. I appreciated him instantly. But I think I like Rory even more, and this is different for me as an L.J. Shen reader. I tend to prefer the heroic journey of our hero over the heroine. Yet, Rory’s strength to endure Mal’s ire, her mother’s meddling, her boyfriend’s assumptions, and her best friend’s deceit makes her my favorite character in this book. Even at the outset of the story, her summation of Mal’s inept handling of women and Kathleen made her more likable to me. It took me longer to appreciate the depth of Mal’s characterization. As the story progressed, I struggled with him even more. Yet, it’s this tension between wanting to protect Rory and feeling disdain for Mal that illustrates Shen’s want to challenge her reader about these characters and their journey. From its beginning, this romance is the story of soulmates, two people fated for each other, and the obstacles set before them. Rory and Mal’s disconnect is Shen’s way of problematizing their journey, worrying us about their future. This is decidedly Shen, even if the typical characterizations are different.
What I found MOST interesting about In the Unlikely Event is her use of point of view and its break of the narrative. The chronology of this story is broken at various points by the past. Shen uses strategically placed flashbacks to provide the backstory of Mal and Rory. She doles these details out, building the tension between Mal and Rory. This is the means by which she drives us forward into the mire of their emotional drama. And it’s delicious. However, she uses outside points of view, interrupting the tension of the story. It’s intriguing, and I’m still trying to figure it out. Again, this is not a typical Shen book. She’s playing with narrative structure and point of view in a way that felt fresh and different from other romances, from her own voice. These interruptions also add humor to the story, another trait so often lost in the seriousness of her storytelling.
I love surprises. Even more, I love it when writers try something new. Even when it might not seem like the new tactic works, it’s important because it shows a writer striving forward, challenging themselves. In the Unlikely Event is Shen’s ode to her storytelling. Infusing her naturally serious, drama-filled romance with aspects of rom-com, crafting a hero who is more artistic and sensitive than most of her other heroes, and offering a heroine who seems more emotionally insightful, Shen is flexing more of her writing muscle. I enjoyed and appreciated every moment of her newest book. In the Unlikely Event suggests that the trope of soulmates fated for each other can always use a fresh look.
In love and romance,