4 out of 4 stars
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Life Before by K.L. Romo is a captivating story that transports the reader (literally) through space and time to experience the lives of Dallas prostitutes in the beginning of the 20th century. Elaine Grace Dearborn put her dreams of being a writer on the back burner to raise her kids. But now that her sons are grown, her excuses are running thin. When she finally sits down to start writing, she is sucked through her laptop to experience a world she had never even known existed. Suddenly she is experiencing first-hand the life of Eliza Genevieve Darling, an ex-prostitute who resides at The Virginia K. Johnson Home & Training Centre for Women. The Centre was created as a way for prostitutes to leave “the life” and gain an education and alternative employment, and Eliza is determined to help as many women leave prostitution as possible. But Elaine will soon come to understand that life was not always as good to Eliza as it is at the Centre. Through multiple trips to the past, Elaine will experience Eliza’s life, from the time she was a little girl right through to the night she was viciously attacked by a client. At least Elaine now knows what to write her novel about, but why does she feel such a connection to Eliza?
K.L. Romo has blurred the lines between the past and the present in a masterful way in this novel. While the plot does tend to jump between dates and characters quite a bit, it never takes more than a few sentences for the reader to understand where they are within the story. However, there were a few cases of repetition that resulted from this jumping around; where a part of the story was repeated almost word for word in order to get the reader on track again. While the repetition might be necessary, the fact that the wording is almost identical makes those particular paragraphs rather frustrating to read.
Taking on a subject as touchy as prostitution is no easy task. The way that Romo describes prostitution repeatedly throughout her novel as a form of slavery shines a brand new light on a centuries old practice. Throughout the book, the reader gets to experience the different forms of prostitution occurring within Dallas at the beginning of the 20th century. From the poor crib whores, tricked and stolen away from their homes and forced into cells to service men day and night, to the prostitutes of the fine establishments on Emma Street, many of whom chose the life on their own. The motivation to partake in the life is also explored in great detail. While some of the whores were forced to the life, many chose it on their own. The main driving factor for this within Life Before is the desire to feel empowered to determine one’s own fate, which is something that many people can relate to.
The characters are complicated and real in a way that prostitutes are rarely portrayed. For the most part, their backstories are heartbreaking, and their experiences and feelings are relatable. What is really fantastic is that the novel actually goes back further to show the characters as young girls, to really make the reader understand where they come from and why they choose to do what they do. The novel is written in a way that makes the characters more complicated and relatable as is goes on. This is accomplished by jumping around in the storyline rather than writing the whole thing chronologically. Even Elaine becomes more complicated of a character as she continues to travel to the past and experience Eliza’s life.
Overall I would rate Life Before 4 out of 4 stars. This is a can-not-put-down kind of story that makes the reader think about the multiple sides of human nature. The plot is engaging and the characters are complex and relatable. This book would appeal most to a mature person interested in novels about human nature and societal double standards. Due to some very graphic scenes, I would not recommend this novel for a younger audience.
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