Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen

Review: Breathe the Sky by Michelle HazenBreathe the Sky by Michelle Hazen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley Books: Penguin Random House on August 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Two strangers start out saving animals and end up rescuing each other in this heartwarming romance from the author of Unbreak Me. 
Mari Tucker is a wildlife biologist who scoops bunnies and endangered tortoises out of harm’s way on construction sites. Still haunted by her past, she takes the most remote jobs in the Mojave Desert to avoid people and hide from her ex. It’s a simple, quiet life filled with sweet animals and solar-powered baking until she ends up assigned to Jack Wyatt’s crew.
Construction foreman Jack Wyatt’s loud, foul-mouthed temper keeps even the most rugged of men on his crew in line. No mistake is overlooked, because out in the desert it could mean life or death. In his opinion, the job site is no place for sensitive biologists, especially one as shy as Mari. But instead of wilting from the heat and hard work, Mari wins over Jack and his crew one homemade brownie at a time.
Jack and Mari find a comfortable rhythm, building a friendship that’s rare for both of them. After Jack’s rocky childhood, they have more in common than they’d imagined. But even the Mojave sun can’t chase away the shadows when the past is determined to track them down…

My Review:

This one had me from “turtle rubber”. Honestly, “turtle rubber”, as in a condom for handling turtles. I started chortling along with the characters and didn’t stop, even though I already knew there was an EvilEx™ lurking in the shadows. And I usually don’t have kind thoughts about stories that rely on the return of an EvilEx™ to power their story.

But turtle rubbers? That, along with “consensual grabbing” of the turtle, tickled my funny bone, got me to empathize with the characters – including the poor, grabbed turtle – and got me hooked.

In spite of the chelonian (crossword puzzle answer meaning “relating to turtles”) humor, Breathe the Sky is not exactly a happy book. It does manage to grope its way towards a happy ending, but it’s a hard, rough ride to get there.

Because there isn’t just one EvilEx™ hanging over this romance like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, there are actually, sorta/kinda, two.

Wildlife biologist Mari Tucker begins the story on the run from her abusive ex-husband. That’s not a secret, not even at the very beginning. Everything Mari says and does seems to lead back to the vicious bastard.

Except, hopefully, her trail from her old life to her current job as a nomadic wildlife biologist – or bio – monitoring construction sites in the Mojave Desert to make sure that the towers that are built don’t contribute any further to the endangerment of the region’s many already endangered species.

Like those turtles.

Mari lives out of her truck, stays on the move, and uses most of her hard-earned cash to make inadequate payments on the thousands of dollars of medical debt she got left with after her divorce. Debts that she accumulated in treatment for all of the damage her ex did to her.

And she’s still looking over her shoulder, and still hearing his voice in her head, telling her that she’s stupid and clumsy, and incapable, and that no one will ever love her or take care of her except him.

There’s still a part of her that believes it, too. That is aware that the real reason that she left him was to keep him from killing her – not for her sake but to save him from a murder charge.

As much as Mari is used to making herself as small as possible in order to dodge the next fist, she still recognizes something of herself in construction foreman Jack Wyatt. Jack is rough and loud and yells more than he talks. But Mari figures out that Jack is, in a peculiar way, just like her.

That he’s waiting for the next blow or the next fist. That he’s scared, too. Just that his way of dealing with his fear is to make himself bigger and louder so that no one else ever sees that he’s afraid. That he’s hearing that same voice in his head telling him that he’s not enough and that he’s never going to amount to anything.

One inch, one step, and especially one solar-oven home cooked brownie at a time, Mari and Jack manage to help each other put some of their broken pieces together.

Only for their rising tide of possibility to get swamped by those old voices, reaching out of their past to try to destroy the present. And possibly succeeding.

Escape Rating B: Breathe the Sky is very much of a slow burn romance. And the reason that the burn is so slow boils down to the weight of the baggage that is dragging behind, and dragging down, both Mari and Wyatt. It’s like they are dragging the chains of Marley and Marley in A Muppet Christmas Carol – but without nearly as much of the humor that leavens that particular version of what is, honestly, a pretty dark story.

After reading Breathe the Sky, and particularly the author’s notes at the end, it feels as if this is really two stories combined into one that are both strong and good stories but don’t meld into as strong of a whole – or possibly that don’t appeal to the same audience.

One story, and it’s the one that brings with it the happy ending, parallels the author’s own life as a nomadic wildlife biologist. One who shares her love of working in remote places and that nomadic lifestyle with her very own romantic hero and has found her own HEA.

But it’s the darker story that dominates this book. Both Mari and Wyatt are domestic abuse survivors. Both come from families where domestic abuse is a repeating pattern. Mari doesn’t admit it, but there was abuse in her childhood, and she repeated the pattern with her ex-husband, who also came from a family with a pattern of abuse. Wyatt’s abuse began with his father and continued with his older brother.

They both have shit they haven’t dealt with, because it’s hard and it’s hard to admit that people who say they love you are hurting you. Even though by the time of this story they have physically escaped their abusers, mentally they are both still trapped and it is keeping them from moving on with their lives.

Neither of them trusts their own judgement, and they don’t feel capable of judging whether or not the other is trustworthy.

So the story operates on two different levels. Readers will probably have different thoughts and feelings about the story depending on which they see as dominant. I found the way that the abuse in their earlier lives continued to hang over them and hold them back to be the larger part of the story, which made it a hard slog for me.

One thing about this part of the story that I did love. In the end they each rescued themselves. They didn’t rescue each other. You can only break your own chains, you can only deal with your own shit. No one can do it for you and it was important to show that.

But it still makes for a very hard read.

Howsomever, readers who see their recovery as the lion’s share of the story will probably come out of the story happier than I did. This one is definitely a case where the reading mileage is going to vary.

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