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Book review – ‘If You Believed in Love’ by Staci Stallings

 If You Believed in Loveby Staci Stallings

Review by Cristy Ballard

Jonathan Danforth has checked out of life. After a sudden and devastating loss, he retreats from the world and spends his days locked in a dark and dirty apartment, falling ever further from reality. But with the help of three unlikely women, he just might find something that is worth stepping back into the light.

At his sister’s behest, Jonathan enrolls in the local college where he meets Elizabeth Forrester, the enigmatic professor who teaches English literature. Fascinated by her passion for Jane Austen, Jonathan can’t help but wonder what she finds so intriguing about the classic stories. As they dig deeper into the books, both Jonathan and Elizabeth begin to see the truth about themselves and find a love that’s as timeless and enduring as the writings of Miss Austen.

Both Jonathan and Elizabeth are broken people who seem to meet each other at exactly the right time. The wonderful thing about Ms. Stallingsʼ writing is that it unfolds so effortlessly that you arenʼt really aware of the changes going on in each character until they themselves understand it. The relationship between Jonathan and Elizabeth is like the blossoming of a flower; it starts with each of them tightly furled into small bud, unwilling to open up and embrace something new. But then, through each book they read, each character Austen presents to them, the petals slowly unfold. Their friendship is born of mutual fascination and an intellectual curiosity about the romance that Miss Austen surrounded herself with in her make-believe worlds.

One of the things I love about this book is how much healing can be had from the simple act of reading another person’s words. I especially love how Jonathan is opened to the idea that you can care about fictional characters and become so involved in their world that you want to experience everything they see and feel. Through that realization, he sees that while he does want to get to know Elizabeth in a more intimate way, he needs to put her needs above his own in order to win her heart.

The character of Elizabeth is at first a little confusing. The reader gets a very complete picture of her character visually, right down to the color and cut of her dress and how she wears her hair. This is the front she puts on to lock out the world. It’s what’s going on inside that is vague. I didn’t understand why she acted the way she did, but the more I got to know her, the more real her character became. This is a testament to the author’s adept writing. Ms. Stallings can weave characters from classic literature into their modern day counterparts with such skill that it doesn’t seem contrived and you never feel like the story is gimmicky.

The writing style of this book is mostly in dialogue and a lot of the scenes take place in the classroom. At times you feel like you are taking the class with Jonathan, with lectures from Elizabeth and question and answer sessions from the students. Rather than detract from the story, I feel like this enhances it because you experience everything right along with the characters, learning as they do. Through the course of reading, I found myself wanting to re-read a lot of Austen, as Elizabeth brings up so many new aspects of the books in her class. I wish I had a teacher as passionate and knowledgeable about literature as she is. It’s no wonder she wakes Jonathan up and brings him back to life in the most unexpected way, through the works of Jane Austen. “

This is not a typical romance. The passion between Jonathan and Elizabeth is subtle but deeply engaging. You truly feel Jonathan’s frustration at having to hold back with Elizabeth in order to win her love, and you feel Elizabeth’s pain at thinking she could lose him at any minute. These are people you know, friends you are rooting for, anxiously waiting for that moment when they each realize what’s right in front of them, and they finally let go and let love in.

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