I would probably rate this around 3.75 stars, so I rounded up.
The book deals with the aftermath of a tragedy. One a Thursday in May, shortly before the end of the school year, an 18 year student enters the gym with a gun and shoots his classmates, and then himself. Initially, there doesn't seem to be a reason, other than that this student was bullied underhandedly despite the school's No Tolerance policy, and struck back.
When we enter the book, the school's principal, Mark Kurtz, who's been divorced from his wife, and his son Max are still dealing with the fallout. Mark holds himself responsible for the shooting, for failing to notice that his student was on the verge of this rampage, for being unable to stop the student from killing others and himself. He's spent the summer looking too deeply into bottles of Whiskey, and trying to find an explanation for that which is inexplicable.
When an old friend of Mark's enters the picture to help out with the psychological fallout of the shooting and assist the survivors with their grief, Mark is confronted with a past he tried to bury. I liked how the author dealt with this difficult subject with respect and grace, without ever making me feel as if she's exploiting this terrible tragedy. School shootings are much too common now, and the description of the actual shooting was handled very well here. While Mark tries to figure out how to help the community, his students and his faculty, heal from this tragedy, he must also figure out how to finally be honest with his sexuality.
His old flame Lane, the psychologist/friend, whom Mark's ex-wife calls to help, is a likable person who tries hard to be patient with Mark, without letting him continue to deny the truth. I wasn't too pleased with the way Mark treated Lane, neither in the present nor in the past when they were college roommates/secret lovers, but I could sympathize with his struggle to come out. Lane is depicted as very patient, still in love with Mark after all these years, but he is also given a bit of backbone, which helped to round out the character quite well.
I loved Max, Mark's son. While he initially was taken aback when he finds out the truth about his dad, he also caught himself quickly and was very supportive. So was Mark's ex-wife. I suspect that she had an inkling about Mark's true nature for a while. As the story progresses, Max and his best friend (a true bromance without any romance at all) also try to make sense of why their mutual friend flipped his lid, and they discover what really happened.
Nothing is ever black and white. The actions of people have repercussions beyond what is often expected, and this story is no different in that. It's almost plucked from real life in that aspect at least, and while the truth doesn't necessarily absolve the kid from killing his classmates, it at least explains why he snapped.
And that is the saddest part of the book for me. That rampant homophobia escalates into intimidation and violation of a young man, who then sees no other recourse than to avenge himself with even more violence, which costs his attackers, and innocent bystanders, their lives. If the homophobia exhibited by these students hadn't happened, if everyone had been supportive of that what we perceive as "different", would the situation have happened at all? And it poses the question - are the students who were killed to blame as well? What is the tipping point?
What I didn't like so much about this book is the fact that this difficult topic is explored against the backdrop of a romance between Mark and Lane. It seemed to some degree take away from the real topic at hand, which is the escalation of violence, the tragedy in which promising kids lose their lives so senselessly, and the aftermath and grief of a community.
I would also like to point out that Mark's last name toward the end of the book changes from Kurtz to Shultz for some reason. Possibly this was an oversight during proofreading, but it stood out for me.
The author did a fine job showing the emotional toll a tragedy like this has on everyone involved, and I commend her for that. This surely wasn't an easy book to write, and it surely wasn't an easy book to read.
** I received a free copy for review from the publisher. **