The folks in Joshilyn Jackson’s sixth novel, Someone Else’s Love Story, are in all kinds of trouble, but they don’t know it right away. The catalyst for self-knowledge turns out to be a botched robbery at the local Circle K—a gas station, for those of you who aren’t in the Atlanta metro area—attempted by a snaggle-toothed little punk who is promptly brained by one of his hostages.

That hostage is William Ashe, and his fellow hostages include a young woman named Shandi Pierce and her 3-year-old son, Natty. Most of the book is narrated by Shandi, the product of a mixed marriage of a fundamentalist Christian mother and Jewish father. Her son is the product of what she wants to believe is an immaculate conception; she didn’t lose her virginity till after Natty was born by C-section, when she begged her longtime best friend, Walcott, to perform the defloration. The trauma of the robbery forces Shandi to realize that her son’s conception could not have been what she thought it was. It also makes her believe she’s in love with William, her savior.

The robbery causes William to realize a few things as well. A scientist who looks rather like a Nordic lumberjack, he’s a touch autistic. The robbery happens on a painful anniversary, and he’s spent a year trying to push the memories of his now-destroyed family out of his head. Like Shandi, William, too, will find his attempts to avoid reality increasingly difficult.

The reader can’t be blamed for at first finding Shandi’s insistence that her lovely, brilliant boy is the product of parthenogenesis somewhat ridiculous. But as Jackson slowly reveals the truth about Shandi, we warm to her—and to weird, heartbroken William, his tough-as-nails best friend Paula, forbearing Walcott and even the dope who held up the Circle K. There are scenes that will make you gasp, pause or even tear up as Jackson’s characters fumble toward imperfect enlightenment. Someone Else’s Love Story will delight and surprise with its unexpected compassion, empathy and humanity.

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