The Smell of Rain by Cameron MacElvee is a beautifully written book about the healing power of love. It isn’t a traditional romance. It is a love story about redemption and hope. This book touched me so deeply that I read it for a second time just a few months after my first reading. It was even better the second time around because I noticed nuances in the story telling that I originally glossed over.
Air Force Lieutenant and military interpreter Chrys Safis fought bravely alongside Kurdish forces in Syria. She fought with some of the bravest and most selfless women she had ever met. She lost her leg during an ambush and after returning to her home in Washington DC she is plagued with PTSD. She turns to alcohol and prescription medication to block out the memories of her friends dying while she was powerless to help them. Her fiancé, Mary, leaves her because Chrys has all but given up her faith in humanity and herself.
Out of the blue, Chrys gets a call from the State Department offering her a position as the interpreter and diplomatic liaison for Reyha Arslan, a Turkish national living in exile. She is in America to address the General Assembly of the United Nations and is staying in DC before she moves on to New York. Reyha is a wise, charming, and elegant woman with her own tragic past. Chrys and Reyha are an unlikely pair, but Reyha teaches Chrys that there is beauty to be found in the impermanence of life. Chrys’s wounded soul begins to heal as a result of Reyha’s tenderness and insight.
Can Reyha’s love help Chrys find her way back to the idealistic, determined woman she once was?
Both Chrys and Reyha are wonderfully complex characters. MacElvee deftly brings them to life and I love it when I meet such deeply intricate and touching characters. Both women have experienced heartrending events in their pasts, yet they each have an unshakeable courageousness about them.
When we meet Chrys, she is a lost woman. She is a shadow of the woman she once was, and her self-destructive behavior is in high gear. This is in stark contrast to the woman we know her to be. From the beginning MacElvee shows the reader through flashbacks and a compelling backstory that Chrys is a competent and selfless woman; a true hero. This is why I immediately felt empathy for Chrys. I knew she was a woman of substance and I wanted to jump into the story to help her get her life back on track. Her character arc is breathtaking. Fate has brought Reyha in to Chrys’s life for a reason. Reyha is like an elixir that slowly brings Chrys back to life. I loved watching Chrys surmount her struggles.
I adore Reyha. She is warm and genuine and walks with an inspiring amount of dignity and grace. She is an apostate, yet she sees the divine in everything around her. She is a realist, yet she loves romantic literature about unrequited love. She is strong and self-reliant, yet she allows herself to be vulnerable with Chrys. She is polite and refined, yet she has a fiery temper that when unleashed, is formidable. Reyha also has her own demons and there is a melancholy layer to her that keeps her from being too perfect. I thought her subtle flirting with Chrys was adorable because it was such a contrast with her courteous and measured demeanor.
The Writing Style
The book is written in the third person from Chrys’s point of view. This is perfect because the story is about Chrys’s internal journey. Chrys isn’t a woman idly sulking over war injuries who just needs to “get it together”. Through the use of nightmares and hallucinations, MacElvee shows the complexity of Chrys’s PTSD. MacElvee constructs the bitter sweet memories of Chrys’s youth and the nightmarish reliving of her time spent in Syria with imagery that allowed me to have a deep understanding of Chrys’s pain. It gave me glimpses of her inner strength that is poised to reemerge with the right catalyst.
The dialogue is spectacular. Each woman has her own distinctive voice colored by her past experiences. Chrys and Reyha are so different, yet It is through their intimate and straightforward conversations that they realize they were meant to find each other. Whether they are discussing politics, literature, love, or whose culture is responsible for bringing yogurt into every home, their talks always include a subtle level of desire. Reyha’s insights and observations wowed me and I think I highlighted just about everything she had to say. The nicest thing is that her wisdom is infused with humor, so it never feels like she is unattainable.
Honestly, I am at a loss here. Everything about this book counts as a pro for me. Chrys and Reyha are a dynamic couple, always challenging, always comforting each other. I loved learning about Greek American traditions. I was fascinated by the political climate in Turkey and I was moved by the stories of the Kurdish women who fought with Chrys in Syria and why they were fighting. The way MacElvee highlights the challenges that Chrys and her fellow disabled veterans are faced with when they return to civilian life is quite poignant. This book offers up a rich tableau of what life is like for disenfranchised men and women in the United States and all over the world.
I feel obligated to point out that this is a love story and not a romance so there isn’t a conventional happily ever after for Chrys and Reyha. The book has a very hopeful ending which was just as satisfying for me.
So, I’ve tried to write a very adult review for The Smell of Rain. It has been difficult. All I really want to do is jump up and down like a pubescent thirteen-year-old at a Taylor Swift concert and scream, “I love this book. I love this book. I love this book.” I became so invested in the characters that I felt their joy and FELT their pain. There is plenty of angst to process in the novel which is always a plus for me. I have no doubt that I will read this book one or two times a year and I’m sure I will continue to find new things that will allow me to reflect and feel in a new way. Okay, here goes, “I Love This Book!”
Excerpt from The Smell of Rain by Cameron MacElvee
“May I make an observation?”
Chrys turned her head. “I enjoy your observations. You’re such a smart lady. I guess you get that from being a teacher all those years.” She grinned. “I think I would’ve liked being one of your students.”
“You would have found me a taskmaster.”
“Really? I think I could’ve handled it. I’m pretty tough.”
Reyha laughed. “Of this I am certain.” She blew another smoke ring and smiled. “However, my observation is this—when you speak of your grandmother, of your time growing up among your friends and family, of your running in the rain, your face brightens, your shoulders lift, and your voice is like music. You have had so many wonderful things in your life, so many blessings even among the hardships. Do you not see when you despair for the state of the world that there are reasons to be grateful as well? Do not these things give you hope?”
“But my grandmother’s gone, and I can’t run like I used to. Everything good always ends. The bad stuff goes on forever.”
Reyha put out her cigarette. “My dear brave friend, do you not understand it is the impermanence of such things that makes them so beautiful? Even the art and music and literature I love are fleeting, for they too can be destroyed.” She gestured with her hand to emphasize her words. “You must remember this always, just as I suspect your grandmother did and your friend Diren as well. You will see. You have not lost your resilience and perseverance. You have only misplaced them.”
“Will I get them back?”
“Do you want them back?”
Chrys looked up at the sky again, followed a line of stars. She used to know the constellations when she was little, had been able to spot her own, the Taurus.
“I think I do,” she said to the sky.
From her peripheral vision, she glimpsed Reyha’s smile.
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781635551668
- Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Cameron MacElvee Online
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