by Rebekah Benoit
Family tragedies both horrify and fascinate. Just take a look at any news outlet and you’ll see and hear about acts of violence and sadness, from murders to abuse to terrible accidents. Why are we so interested in stories of everyday families torn apart by tragedy? Possibly, it’s because until disaster struck, these families were just like our own, and reading about events like these remind us of our own humanity and make us a little more grateful for our own boring lives. This is what draws the reader into Kimberly Belle’s latest, The Last Breath, a story that is equal parts suspenseful thriller, emotional drama and romance.
Sixteen years ago, a horrifying act of violence tore Gia Andrews’ family apart. Her mother was murdered in a truly cruel manner, her life snuffed out by the man who had promised to love and cherish her forever. When Gia Andrews’ stepfather Ray was sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal murder of her mother, Gia ran as far from her hometown as she could get, hoping to leave the terrible memories of the past behind forever. For 16 years, she has worked in some of the most war-torn and devastated areas of the planet as a humanitarian aid worker, helping families struck by tragedy and subconsciously trying to make things better for those families as she could not do for her own all those years ago.
But Gia is dragged back to the small Tennessee town where her mother took her last painful breaths and where her family, as she knew it, ceased to exist, when tragedy strikes again. Her stepfather, diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only weeks to live, is released from prison, and Gia finds that she’s the only family member willing to take on his care. Unwilling but unable to say no, Gia reluctantly returns home.
What confronts her when she arrives is overwhelming. A college professor has been working on a book about Ray’s case, and presents compelling evidence to Gia that suggests that her stepfather may not have been the guilty party after all. Gia is forced to confront the possibility that the man she’s despised for all these years, the man she turned her back on and left to rot in prison, may actually be innocent.
Even considering that possibility is a dangerous prospect. Gia’s siblings have long since put the past behind them, and the notion that Ray might be innocent causes a rift within the family. If Gia pushes to discover the truth behind what really happened to her mother, she risks losing the rest of her family.
Her brother and sister’s anger over Ray’s supposed crime pales in comparison to that of the rest of the town. The front lawn becomes the permanent home of swarms of angry protestors, furious that Ray has managed to dodge out of his punishment because of his illness. Gia is loath to further incur the wrath of her neighbours by even suggesting that Ray might be innocent. But as more clues about the night Gia’s mother died are revealed, the true identity of the murderer becomes less and less clear. What really happened to Gia’s mother that terrible night? And what secrets have family members like Gia’s beloved uncle Cal been keeping all these years?
I liked this book a lot. It was a gripping and suspenseful page-turner that kept me guessing right up to the last page. My only grip is the element of romance – Gia becomes involved in a steamy fling with a local bartender – that seemed a little contrived and at times took away from the rest of the story. I’m all for a little romance, but sometimes I wondered whether I was reading a whodunit or a bodice-ripper. All in all, a good suspense story with a satisfying plot twist at the end that will make you glad you waded through the ubiquitous sex scenes.