The Words between Us by Erin Bartels

I have this almost continuous problem. I am endlessly curious about a host of subjects from politics and current events to theology and behavioral economics. I have a library full of such books and frequently check out and buy more from the library and bookstores online and off.

But I can only read so much non-fiction before my brain gets tired. So when I am ready to relax and read a little before bed, I look for fiction. As a result, I am always on the lookout for that perfect blend of engaging and yet not too mentally taxing.

It was on just such a search that I stumbled on to The Words Between Us by Erin Bartels. I believe it was a glowing review from Shawn Smucker on Goodreads that prompted me to check it out. Turns out it was available for free for Amazon Prime members so I grabbed and started reading.

Robin Windsor has spent most of her life under an assumed name, running from her family’s ignominious past. She thought she’d finally found sanctuary in her rather unremarkable used bookstore just up the street from the marina in River City, Michigan. But the store is struggling and the past is hot on her heels.

When she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of her father’s scheduled execution, Robin is thrown back to the long-lost summer she met Peter Flynt, the perfect boy who ruined everything. That book–a first edition Catcher in the Rye–is soon followed by the other books she shared with Peter nearly twenty years ago, with one arriving in the mail each day. But why would Peter be making contact after all these years? And why does she have a sinking feeling that she’s about to be exposed all over again?

I have to say, I enjoyed this book despite it not really being my style. The obvious hook is that it is in large part about the love of books and language something I share. But is also clearly a romance, not something I typically read or enjoy.

What makes it work is the pace, tension and light touch. Bartels does not lay on the romance particularly thick so it doesn’t intrude on the story or dominate the style in a way that is off-putting (at least to me). And alternating chapters between the present and the past she builds tension and a sense of mystery.

The central character, Robin, is very well done. She feels like a fully formed person despite her extraordinary experiences. There is one section that strains believability a tad but otherwise her family’s past seems believable even as it shapes and forms her personality and choices. Her interaction with her parents was particularly well done even if brief.

Every time it feels like the story might begin to drag, when it is focused on romantic relationships and Robin’s fear, the plot twists and the story receives a jolt of energy. The mystery that has been in the background for most of the book and the romantic tension both come together in the end.

At the risk of being accused of sexism or stereotypes, this book will appeal to women (the Goodread reviews are dominated by female readers) but it has the storytelling to rise beyond simple romance. I also enjoyed reading a book set in my home state of Michigan. Bartels makes the setting add to the story and its characters.

It is also worth noting that it is published by a Christian publisher. There are faith elements but they are no obtrusive and seem just a natural part of the background. Those looking for a more obvious spiritual resolution will be disappointed but those worried about “Christian Fiction” should not worry.

All in all, a satisfying novel with just the right blend of romance, mystery and the love of books.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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