Overall Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Ilsa Madden-Mills is one of my top favorite authors. She writes contemporary romance in such a way that connects so deeply with my heart that I have read her entire book list, and I continue to download any new book she publishes. She has this way of magnifying the human condition that, while the characters’ experiences might be vastly different from our own, their truth connects with our personal truths.
Her newest book, Dear Ava, continues in this tradition. In a similar vein as her Briarwood Academy series, this book is set in high school which might turn away a reader. Don’t fail to read this book because the characters are high school students. Beneath this facade lies truths about self-respect and empowerment: two ideals desperately needed in a #metoo world. We may have left high school many years ago, or we might have left it recently, but the characters of this story, Knox, Ava, and Dane, evoke the same struggles of women and men in our modern day. Whether you are a high school student or a woman in the workplace or a person online in the cancerous Twittersphere, you’ve encountered bullies and/or the commoditization of the female body and consent. These are profound messages in this book. To not read Dear Ava is to miss the power of this book to articulate the need for women to own their own happiness for themselves, regardless of one’s connection to another.
Here’s a warning: Dear Ava deals with difficult topics, namely sexual assault. If you’ve had this experience, you should be prepared going into this book. Madden-Mills does such a beautiful job of safely presenting this topic, including resources at the end for anyone who may need them. Additionally, for me, Dear Ava is a book wherein you need to be patient. I read this book in its short story anthology form, so I was familiar with some of the bigger moments of the story in the first half of it. That made it, at times, a little slow for me. Yet, it’s important to recognize that Madden-Mills needs to build the relationships of her characters. There is romantic suspense, enemies-to-lovers, young adult, and second chance tropes developed in her story. She masterfully intertwines these tropes, offering a little something for everyone. In my opinion, the big emotional pay-off lies in the last third of this book. I found myself waiting to connect emotionally to this version of Dear Ava, after having read the first conception of it. Since I was familiar with its first part, I found myself emotionally suspended, so to speak. When Madden-Mills begins revealing more of the story that I had yet to read, she drowned me in my emotions. As Ava learns the truth of her story, my heart broke, and I cried for her. Madden-Mills empathically connects you with Ava’s trauma even if you have never lived her experience.
Ava is the true hero of this book. Honestly, the male characters cannot hold a candle to her depiction. She is everything you hope for in a romantic heroine: inner strength, resilient, willing to face her demons, insightful, and brave. She is the most capable, self-sacrificing heroine that I’ve read in some time. When Knox, the hero, tells us he’s not worthy of her, so he shouldn’t be with her, believe him. In her, Madden-Mills offers insight into the difficulties of poverty and the lower socio-economic class. Yet, she doesn’t suffocate her with it. Instead, she shows Ava’s resiliency in taking control of her situation. Ava is empowered, even when it seems the opposite. In one of the biggest turns of the story, Ava takes full control of her life when her choice may seem unpopular to Madden-Mills’s readers. For me, while my heart hurt, it was my favorite moment of the story. It shows that Ava has finally taken back what was stolen from her, and she makes the choice to love herself (and her little brother) first before the hero. There is a bravery in that choice, and don’t worry, Madden-Mills rewards her readers for bearing it through to the end.
The male characters, Knox, Dane, and Chance, seem ancillary to this story even though we need heroic figures to tell romantic stories. Those typical moments occur in Dear Ava, but the male characters act as representations of the ways in which men often fail women. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that women can only find completion in a romantic connection with men (or a significant other). Instead, in this story, Madden-Mills shows the personal implications of “not acting” when someone needs you. This is probably the biggest insight that comes from Dear Ava. When we see someone wronged, Madden-Mills suggests through her story that we MUST act even when the circumstances seem muddled. This storyline provides the biggest insight into the power behind this book, and it is what makes Dear Ava a necessary read in the romance community.
Once again, Ilsa Madden-Mills proffers a story that both engages us emotionally and intellectually. I do think Dear Ava has a different voice from Madden-Mills’s other books, and I appreciate it when a storyteller is willing to try something new. While this book may seem slow to start (and again, for this reader, it could be that I had read some of the story previously), its last third will flay you open and make you question the purpose of romance. Many times, the happy ending of a romance seems elemental to the romantic heroic arc. Yet, Madden-Mills plays with us in Dear Ava, asking us to never take our happy endings for granted. That we should remain vigilant to the second, standing up for ourselves first and others who need us in moments of trouble. There is beauty in that truth, just as there is a beauty in the strength of character that lives a life that is brave and honest, as evidenced by Ilsa Madden-Mills’s book, Dear Ava.
In love and romance,