A book that starts in the aftermath of fear and terror, but ends with great joy and hope for the future — and that is a lovely thing.
This review is based on an advance reading copy generously provided by the author.
By day, Catherine Heloise work as a scientific coordinator in a medical research Institute. By night, she sings Bach and Brahms and other composers whose names do not start with B, bakes incessantly, worries about politics, reads as much escapist fiction as she can get her hands on (these two things are related), and writes three blogs — one about food, one about politics, and, most recently, one for short stories inspired by the Paris Metro. She also writes an occasional music blog. Periodically, she wants to review a book, but starting a fifth blog would be ridiculous, so here she is… Authors she loves to read include Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Robin McKinley, Laura Florand and Courtney Milan, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
Trust Me occurs in the aftermath of the events that occurred at the end of Chase Me [ BT | Amz | iT ], the previous book in this series, and much of the book is about the characters recovering from these events. I found that I could not write this review without providing significant spoilers for Chase Me, so consider yourself warned! (Or better still, just go back and read Chase Me. The review can wait, and who doesn’t want to read more Laura Florand [ T | F | W ], really?)
Lina Farah is the head pastry chef at Michelin-starred restaurant Au Dessus. She is fiercely confident, assertive, and a fighter … or at least, she was, up until a week ago, when Au Dessus was attacked by terrorists, one of whom was Lina’s cousin. Now, though, she is finding it hard to recognise herself in the mirror. It doesn’t help that although Lina was both a victim and a heroine of this attack, many people now view her as Arab-French and a potential terrorist first, and everything else a distant second — and she is very much afraid that one of the people who might see her this way is American Special Forces operative, Jake Adams.
Jake has fallen for Lina even before the book begins — in fact, he says at one point that he fell in love with her at first sight, in the moment of the attack on her restaurant, covered in blood, but utterly calm and focused on protecting her team. He loves her strength and fierceness, and loves even more the way that once the crisis is over, she turns around and plunges head-first into the most life-affirming things she can find — creating beautiful food and feeding it to people.
He volunteers to guard Lina, but even if he hadn’t done so, it’s clear that he couldn’t stay away from her if he wanted to, regardless of how much his teammates tease him for this. His character arc is pretty straightforward in this respect — he knows what he wants and never really falters from that. The main change for Jake comes from his reflections on his career and what he really wants from his future.
There’s a lot to like about Jake. There’s the fact that he really does understand and respect what Lina has been through, and recognises her responses for what they are. There is a particularly lovely scene in the book where he accidentally sneaks up on her, and she startles violently, and he apologises immediately while all his teammates tell him off for doing something that stupid — and Lina suddenly realises that they all view her response as normal and reasonable, and the reason he is apologising is less about the fact that he startled her and more about the fact that he was thoughtless enough to forget to treat her like someone who has recently seen combat.
Another thing I like about Jake is that even though he is all in for Lina from the start, he is quite firm about setting boundaries. Early on in the story, Lina decides that using him for sex might be a good way to push the nightmares away for a bit, and propositions him. Jake’s response is terribly conflicted — on the one hand, he recognises that this is about distracting herself from her fears by grasping at something life-affirming, and he both understands and admires this; on the other hand, while he is desperately attracted to her (the word hero worship is used, to Lina’s bemusement), no-strings sex is absolutely the last thing he wants from her. But he can’t bring himself to let her down, or to fail to give her what she needs, either, and this is something he has to find a way to negotiate.
It actually takes a while for Lina to notice just how conflicted Jake is about this — she really is fighting her own head for most of the book and doesn’t have room to consider what Jake might be feeling (though she is horrified when she does figure it out), and again, Jake completely gets where she is coming from, and finds a response that respects his own feelings while giving Lina what she needs. All of this makes for deeply uncomfortable reading in many ways, but it also feels very true to their characters. I’d also note that the way consent is talked about in these scenes is quite interesting — at one point, Jake tells Lina that just because she chooses to give him her body, that doesn’t mean that she gets to say what he does with his, and Lina reflects that this is the sort of thing she would expect to be saying to a man, not the other way around.
(The consent is there, certainly, and the sex is very hot, but it’s quite difficult to read, nonetheless.)
Lina’s character arc is more complex. While this story is a romance, in many ways it’s even more about Lina finding herself again — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say discovering the person she is now, in the wake of such a traumatic and life-changing event.
At the start of the book, Lina is afraid, and she hates being afraid; she wants to fight, but she really has nothing that she can fight directly; and she is constantly conscious of being seen as Muslim, and as a potential terrorist, and a big part of her is seriously afraid that this is why Jake is actually hanging around her. And she’s angry about that, too, because she isn’t even a particularly devout Muslim, and while she is certainly not ashamed of her background, she wants to be defined by the things she creates, not by her ethnicity. Her entire identity and sense of self feels as though it’s hanging very tenuously and she isn’t sure how to find her way back to it.
She starts by cooking. This sounds simplistic, and of course it is, but for Lina, making desserts and feeding people is a core part of her identity — and making desserts in the very same kitchen that she was attacked in is the biggest middle finger she can possibly give to the terrorists. One thing I love about Lina is that even when she is all tangled up inside her own head to the point of self-absorption, and entirely failing to recognise Jake’s feelings, her coping mechanism is still about giving and nurturing the people around her — her best friend who is in hospital after the attack, her friend’s boyfriend, also in hospital, even his friends. Using food as a way to show care for others is a foundational part of her nature, something she does even when she doesn’t entirely realise that she’s doing it.
(Full disclosure here: I’m half Italian, so I am 100% on board with the notion that food is love and that feeding people is how you show you care about them. It’s a pretty fundamental part of my nature, too. So I’m totally there with the bringing everyone dessert in hospital, even if I can’t do it half as beautifully as Lina can.)
Florand is a master at describing food that you can virtually taste — flavours, textures and colours are all lovingly described, and you should be warned now that you are not going to get through this book without acquiring a serious craving for crème brûlée. And, as in all of Florand’s books, food is a language all of its own, but not always one that both characters know how to speak.
He didn’t even have words for the sensations in his mouth, when he took his first spoonful of her dessert. The fresh and the sweet and the cool, the layering of– yes, mango– and something creamier and greener in flavor that he didn’t know the name for. It made him think of an oasis. Or of sitting in the shade of a palm tree on a deserted island, with nothing but him and peaceful, warm water as far as he could look…
“You don’t like it?” Lina said, a little stiffly.
He realised he’d taken only one spoonful of her fancy dessert and not said a word. “Mmm.” He quickly took another. Jesus, this stuff tasted dangerous. She could mess a man all up feeding him things like this as if his insides were tender and fancy and fragile. He’d found her a hell of a lot less terrifying when she was wielding chainsaws.
I love that Lina’s food is both terrifying and precious to Jake, and that his reactions to it are therefore not the eager delight that Lina expects as her due, but something far more wary and awed. Lina, naturally, takes this as an insult. But I think in many ways Jake’s reaction is a recognition of the amount of her own heart and self that Lina puts into her food, and so he can’t accept it with the easy delight of his fellows, because it means too much to him.
(The more I think about it, the more I feel that Florand is completely validating my convictions about food being love. But as I said, I’m hardly unbiased here!)
Back to Lina’s fears, I like the fact that by the end of the book, while Lina has found her centre again, and is able to look towards the future, one doesn’t get the sense that she is magically healed of all her fears — and indeed, it’s recognised that she is still, potentially, a target for terrorists and may well remain so. But you know that she is going to be OK — one gets the sense that her new awareness of her mortality only drives her to throw herself even more thoroughly into living as fully as possible.
Like Chase Me before it, Trust Me has a different tone to Florand’s other books. The writing is as sensual and delicious as ever, but the overall tone is darker, quieter, a bit more real world than her Paris Chocolate or Vie en Roses series. It’s not a dark book — there is plenty of delightful, funny banter between Jake and his team (and oh dear, that book club); there is Lina’s obsession with Jake’s freckles and whether they really do go everywhere (I’m not spoiling that for you — you will have to find out for yourselves); there is Lina’s activist mother, who is determined to get herself arrested for wearing a burkini in protest against the new laws, even though she has never worn hijab in her life; and there is, of course, the glorious, beautiful, delicate food that you can practically taste as you read. And the story itself is as life-affirming as Lina’s desserts — the motto of Paris, Fluctuat nec mergitur (Tossed by the waves, but never sunk), is quoted several times in the book, and is very much a theme, for Paris itself, for Lina, for all her colleagues, and even for the restaurant.
This is a gorgeous, very sweet romance. It has a hero who was convincing as macho military but whom I didn’t want to smack even once — which really is very nearly a miracle — and a heroine whom I adored fiercely, and wanted desperately to see find herself again. Which she did, and it was beautiful. If you like your romances driven by plot, this one probably won’t work for you, but if you like plenty of internal conflict, strong female (and male) friendships, mature and resilient characters, and, of course, glorious descriptions of food, then I think this book will make you very happy.
Content advisory: Don’t read on an empty stomach.
You can find an extract of the book here. Self-published.