Grove Creek Press 2009/2010
Zoe is eighteen, in her senior year of high school and not having the easiest time of it. Her five year old sister is autistic and while her parents are loving, they are also constantly distracted by the strain of looking after Abria. Zoe's sixteen year old brother, Luke, is teetering on the edge of a serious drug habit and she herself is self-medicating with booze, parties and inappropriate friends. Zoe finds herself resentful, rebellious and angry and seems to be wallowing in hopelessness until she encounters a young man talking to her sister in the local park. His name is Matthias and he is Abria's guardian angel.
I know, I know! The YA market is saturated with angel stories and they're not all terribly good, turning into run of the mill paranormal romances complete with predictable love triangles and golden wings. Jennifer Lauren's trilogy does have a romantic aspect and yes, Zoe has some choices to make with regards to her love life – in fact, everything you would expect to show up absolutely does. Yet there are aspects of these books that make them different and interesting – and these have nothing to do with Matthias and his heavenly host (not that a heavenly host is mentioned, he just seems like the kind of guy who might have one).
Zoe is a refreshingly unique protagonist. At first, she's not very likable. In fact, throughout all three books she says and does things that aren't all that nice – but that are very believable. Who hasn't said something cruel or snippy and regretted it straight away? In fact, who hasn't said something horrid and not regretted it at all? It's a brave way to write a character and makes Zoe really compelling to read. Zoe's family play a large role in all three books, particularly her brother Luke. Rather than being a token sibling figure, he is a multi-faceted character who plays as much a role in Zoe's life and story as any of her friends. Their relationship is close, but not that overly chummy friendship that you see in some fictional family ties – they argue plenty, and with style.
Other characters in the story are no less intriguing. Weston and Britt are probably the most interesting, with Weston prompting real pause for thought. I did have some issues with the growing friendship between Zoe and Weston. No matter how remorseful he was after the fact and how drunk he was during it, his actions in Heavenly were extreme and I felt that Zoe forgave him rather too quickly. As an adult, I can see that this ties into the overall themes of the books (particularly those in Penitence) but would worry about teenagers perhaps picking up a different message. Weston is a sympathetic character and his remorse is both believable and painful but I think Zoe's forgiveness should have been slightly harder to come by.
Younger sister, Abria, is exceptionally well written. Having worked with an autistic child of about Abria's age I found the depiction of autism in these books to be very accurate. I believe that Jennifer Laurens has an autistic child of her own and this would account for the ring of truth that many of Abria's actions have. Laurens has written Abria as a happy, if demanding, ray of sunshine and it was a pleasure to see an autistic child portrayed so positively without the very real strains of caring for such a child being undermined in any way.
Of course there is also Angel Matthias to take into account. He's all well and good (although I found his turn of speech irritating rather than endearing) but I didn't really understand the nature of his relationship with Zoe. There is less of a love triangle and more of a menage-e-trois (don't get any ideas, it's not that kind of book) with Zoe seeming to have her cake and eat it for most of the trilogy. Of all the angel books I've read recently, however, Matthias probably fits the role of traditional angel best. He dresses in light colours, seems to embody serenity and is an all round nice sort of chap. The thing is, he's not half as interesting as the mortal characters and I often just wanted him to fly away and let the earthly story lines unfold unhindered.
The angelic story line in Heavenly, Penitence and Absolution is interesting in its own way but really it isn't what makes this trilogy stand out. The strengths of these books are in the contemporary writing, not the paranormal. Difficult themes are covered with real deftness; from drug addiction and teen drinking, to attempted rape and sexual abuse of children all wrapped in the trilogy's central themes of remorse and forgiveness. Sadly, these books haven't been published in the UK but, should you come across them, take a look – they do far more than they say on the tin (in fact, they have been rather woefully blurbed and I would advise not reading the back at all) and mark Jennifer Laurens out as a contemporary writer to watch.
Heavenly, Penitence and Absolution can be ordered via The Book Depository. Thank you to the lovely Emma at Asamum Booktopia for lending me these titles - and for being so patient when it took me an age to finally read them.