Review: Before Dawn by Laura F. Murphy (2022)

Heat Factor: It’s closed door, so although the subject matter is really gritty and juicy, you won’t find descriptions of heat here.

Character Chemistry: Max and Smith’s relationship is very steady and tender, which is good for Max considering how intense every other aspect of her life is.

Plot: Max is in a 6 year relationship with a married man who is 14 years her senior. Literally her entire life falls apart, and throughout the fall out and all the repair work, her friend Smith slowly turns into someone really special.

Overall: This is a really intense, smut-adjacent book about a woman going through just the absolute worst life has to offer, but at least she’s got a loving family and a hot boyfriend.

First off, I do think this book is smut adjacent—the story here is Max’s very slow descent into chaos and pain, and then her efforts to make decisions that will pull her out of that darkness. One of the biggest efforts she’s making is in her love life, but that’s absolutely secondary to several way bigger issues at hand—and in fact, Smith flat out says they can’t pursue a relationship until probably ¾ of the way through the book because she’s traumatized and struggling and needs more time to recover. And Smith is a pretty reasonable guy, so if he says no romance until other priorities are made, I believe him. So, to summarize—this probably wouldn’t be categorized as flat-out romance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t romantic.

As a secondary point, Max at a very young 18 years old is groomed by a man 14 years her senior (he literally waits until she turns 18, this is grooming and it is not okay) to become his mistress. This might be triggering for people (it was for me), because nowhere in the book is it ever called out that this is what happened. The relationship itself is very clearly spelled out as being toxic and inappropriate, but when everything is exposed Max never fully grasps that she was the victim here. She actually stoically accepts responsibility for her choices, which, okay that’s great, but she’s also called out by a lot of other characters for staying and it’s all very gut-knotting and uncomfortable to see this young woman be put through hell and then never get the release of knowing it wasn’t her fault. Because it wasn’t. She’d never been in an intimate relationship with anyone and was lied to and manipulated into something she was not emotionally capable of processing. So, that was really distressing. And to be clear, that Tommy is a dirtbag, and a manipulative cheater, and (SPOILER!!) probably killed Max’s baby is patently obvious in this story—it’s not like this relationship is written as being positive for Max in any way whatsoever, the author is quite clear about that—but it was really difficult to read about and was a heavy part of most of the book, so I think it warrants more closure than it got.

On to the plot itself: Max, as stated, is in a relationship with a racist predator (she’s black, the microaggressions and blatant racism are real, people) when she discovers she’s pregnant. I have already spoilered this (SPOILER AGAIN!!) but Max ends up in a car wreck after being threatened by Tommy, and the perpetrator is never found. Also, Tommy is a car mechanic. So. Needless to say, at this point Max has lost her mother, Tommy grooms, manipulates, and abuses her, and she’s been in a traumatic car wreck and lost her baby at 8 months along. This is like, just under halfway through the book. At this point she has met Smith, but he’s kind of just a gentle friend whose motorcycle she keyed accidentally (she meant to key Tommy’s) and he just kind of pops up here and there as a steadying presence. After Max realizes Tommy might have been the reason she lost her child, she goes absolutely off the handle and breaks into Tommy’s home, plants evidence of their affair for Tommy’s wife to find, breaks stuff, steals his car, and tries to kill herself in it. So, she ends up in therapy. (This book shall be the hallmark of our future list featuring titles where we thanked the heavens a character went to therapy. Poor woman, good lord.)

Anyway, in the middle of all this, Max is trying to figure out who her birth mother is…what she should do for a career (since Tommy never let her work and she dropped out of school)…how to function in her family when people are getting pregnant and having babies…and how to have a healthy relationship with someone who isn’t using and abusing her. It’s a lot. You can see why her potential romance with Smith is not top priority here. I’m a huge romance nerd and I can say with certainty that that is as it should be under the circumstances. Give the poor girl some time.

The book’s execution is decent. There’s certainly plenty of juice in the plot even without the romantic relationship with Smith. I found some sections to be a little repetitive and it’s definitely a slower-paced book. But I wasn’t really in any hurry when reading and the narrative and dialogue felt real. 

Do I recommend this book? It was an uncomfortable read, but it was actually pretty gripping. Max is gritty and unapologetically struggling through immense waves of grief and trauma, and the author really treats that with the dose of reality it deserves. Max has panic attacks, tries various ways to cope (some more effective than others), and sees a psychiatrist and therapist. She works through issues in many of her familial relationships and has to work to figure out what kind of a person she wants to be. I appreciated her voice and her flaws, to be honest. There’s a very quiet vulnerability that peeks through, and it’s really very nice. It helped that I did not read this through a romance lens—when you’re reading it on its own, you’re not stressed about when she’s going to lock things down with Smith. It’s just part of a bigger journey she’s on and that’s okay. So, I have mixed feelings about it. While I did enjoy the book it was very hard for me personally to read, but I was happy for Max in the end. 

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon

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