Content Guidance: This book contains grooming, on-page SA, and religious trauma related to purity culture and the patriarchy, and therefore this review includes discussion regarding the treatment of those issues.
I'm going to preface this review by saying this book is important. As someone from a similar background, I found the confusion and tension Emma feels throughout her sexual awakening and exploration relatable and portrayed well. Emma was raised to believe that her body was not her own and in order to be good, she had to deny her very natural feelings and bodily functions. So her choice to deconstruct those beliefs and search for a healthier relationship with her body, sexuality, and feelings is something I loved to see on the page, and I'd love to see more books explore this.
Generally, I loved the relationship dynamics in this book. They interweave and overlap in a way that is very high school. Tanner and Emma's romance is fast-paced and intense; Emma's friendships are loving and challenging; and Emma's changing relationship with her dad is frustratingly understandable. C.L Walters created complex characters with complex relationships, and the way the changing relationships challenge Tanner and Emma's beliefs and romance is the star of this book.
However, this book felt about 150 pages too long. I think Walters fell into the trap of wanting to tell all the stories in one book (a trap I know all too well). As a result, several side plots and backstories felt tagged on rather than integral to the story. Unfortunately, this includes the sexual assault and grooming backstories. I know from the author's note at the end of the book that Emma's #metoo backstory and her consequent struggle with her self-worth due to her religious background were especially important to Walters, and while I agree it's an important story to tell, it felt like it should've been part of a different story or novel. Emma's purity culture upbringing was enough for me to believe she would struggle with her desire for Tanner.
This is the same with Tanner's grooming backstory. While I agree it's important to show that all people can be grooming and sexual assault victims, it didn't feel essential to Tanner's story in this book. I think it would've been better represented with a different character and a different story.
Finally, the Tanner's-favorite-book subplot didn't feel essential to the story, and I didn't understand the excerpts throughout. I loved the scene where Tanner and Emma are reading it together, but I don't think Tanner's secret bookishness added any actual depth to his character or story. It could've been removed without harming their love story or the friendship and family subplots.
Since these stories felt more tagged on than essential, they distracted from Emma and Tanner's emotional journeys, which involve learning that their self-worth comes from, well, within. And while the underlying lesson is the same, each comes to the lesson differently and separately. I'm a sucker for a love story where fulfillment is NOT found in the romance, and Walters delivers. But Emma's journey to learn this was a little more frustrating than Tanner's. While I understand it may have been more difficult for her due to evangelical theology ingrained in her, I think the book's length detracted from her journey and character in the end.
That being said, I would recommend this book to those interested in purity culture representation and those who love sex-positive non-HEA love stories. If you enjoy Katie Cotugno's 99 Days, Erin Hahn's Never Saw You Coming, and open-door sex scenes, you'll enjoy this book.