Five years ago Joss left without warning to join the French Foreign Legion. Joss was Celié's brother's best friend, and her teenage crush. Celié has never forgotten him or the her youthful hopes and fantasies. When he left their rundown neighborhood, she chose to not sit in despair, hoping he would return for her, but instead set off on a quest of her own. While Joss has been off in the Legion looking to become the best he can be, Celié has climbed the ranks of Parisian chocolate makers to become one of the very best in the world.
After 5 years Joss tries to walk back into Celié's life only to discover that not only has she not been sitting around waiting for him to return and cover him in kisses, but is actually terrifically angry with him. Joss is confused but undeterred, determined to claim Celié's heart.
I loved this romance. In this story Florand constructs a fascinating narrative about perfection, objectification, aspiration, fantasy and reality. Joss is a courtly lover come to life. He had set off to be prove his worth, so that he could claim the love of the woman he adored. The hope of her love, the thought of being worthy of her, sustained him through the incredibly rigors of his Legionnaire's training. He is faithful to his love of her despite constant temptations in his lonely life. His commitment is extraordinary, but it is misguided and self-involved.
Celié was hurt by his sudden absence, left alone to sort out and try to understand what if anything they ever had. She has spent five years trying to remake herself into someone who doesn't need or want a knight-in-shining-armor. She deeply resents the idea that he went of on this quest for her, that he chose to go do something alone for the idea of her, rather than risk failure while trying to make a better life for them together.
I loved how Florand explored the difference between being an object of desire and hope and actually being in a relationship. Joss and to lesser extent Celié have to disentangle their fantasies about each other and the relationship they wanted to have with the other from the reality of who they actually are. I loved that they need to learn to listen to each other's needs, to see each other as human beings. I loved that they have to fall in love with each other again, even if they never fell out of lust with each other.
I was fascinated by the disconnect between Joss and Celié about the nature of love & actions of love. Joss is determined to be good enough for Celié. He fails to communicate his fears and failures, so that he might present her with a perfect finished product . His vision of love is a kind of work-righteousness. He must be good and perfect so that he might earn love and affection. Celié understands love not as something that can be earned but something that is shared. Celié wants for Joss to accept that she has always love him, and that she felt cheated by the fact they did not struggle to make something of their lives together. In the novel Joss eventually surrenders his self-focused and solitary vision of love, and accepts one where he trusts his partner with his failures and includes her in his decision making progress. Celié in turn has to forgive Joss for trying to do it alone and accept and love the new man he remade himself to be and let him share in her life.
The story was told with great charm and humor by Florand. She has a wonderful ability of creating beautiful, strong men who are squishy and vulnerable inside. Joss's struggle to wrestle his feelings into words, to allow his feelings to show on his face and body warring against years of ruthless training and along with his struggle to relax & reintegrate to civilian life were very convincingly portrayed.
One of the things I love the most about Florand is her ability to create a fictional Paris that can be an attractive fantasy but still feel like a real place. I love that Florand acknowledges the rude and lewd cat-callers that haunt the Seine's romantic banks. Florand's characters don't spend a lot of time in seedier side of Paris, but they acknowledge it exists. But the strength of Florand's sense of place in her novels led to an unintentionally jarring element in the story. In the story Joss continually struggles with low-level survival anxiety. His years in war-zones make him hyper-vigilant and he has remind himself that he is not longer in one, and school his reactions. When these scenes came up I couldn't help thinking how Joss would fare in post-Charlie-Hebdo attack Paris and how that would complicate his reintegration to civilian life. I don't think it was an oversight by Florand, but rather a testament to her ability to create characters that I care about and whose world feel solid enough that I want to connect it to our real world.
I also continue to appreciate the way she is able to have former protagonists appear in her series without stealing the focus. She is not scared to acknowledge that Dom and Joss are cut from the same cloth, yet they are given very different kinds of heroines and romances. I liked how Dom interacted with Joss and that what they both meant to Celié has always been different. I look forward to reading more books in this series following Celié s fiercely competitive friends and peers.
I received a review copy of All for you from the author, Laura Florand.