Ghosted by J.M. Darhower is a shout-out to fandom, wrapped up in an emotional story of lost love and redemption. MUSTREAD for contemporary romance fans!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
J.M. Darhower is one of my favorite authors, EVER. I remain in awe of her ability to tell profound stories that shatter your heart, feed your soul, and swoon you right off your feet. I will always read anything J.M. writes. Earlier this summer when J.M. announced her new novel, Ghosted, I was going to read it regardless. But the way she talked about Ghosted, you just knew this was a special story. In it, J.M. essentially writes a love letter for fandom, encouraging us to love our faves with no shame in our game. At the same time Ghosted has her signature elements, particularly as it relates to the importance of family and the beauty and pain involved in journeys of redemption.
Jonathan Cunningham meets Kennedy Garfield during their senior year of high school and almost instantly, their stories overlap. In a situation where the best Jonathan can hope for is to be ignored (or suffer abusive consequences), Kennedy sees him and encourages him. She shares her love of her favorite comicbook superhero, Breezeo, and Jonathan opens up about his desire to be an actor. The bond formed between them is so strong that, when Jonathan decides to skip finals and graduation to run away to LA, Kennedy goes with him…
Ghosted picks up several years later when Jonathan is now Johnny Cunning, a famous actor who is best known for playing Breezeo in the blockbuster film adaptations. Unfortunately, he and Kennedy are now estranged, to the point that Jonathan doesn’t even have a role in their five-year-old daughter’s (Maddie) life. Kennedy is back in their hometown working as an assistant manager in a local grocery store. She’s now a single-mother trying to make ends meet. But everytime she sees another tabloid cover of Johnny Cunning out and about with a starlet, deep in a haze of drugs and alcohol, Kennedy can’t help the pang in her heart. And that pain grows when she thinks about how Maddie’s favorite character/actor is actually the father she’s never known. *SIGH* Kennedy is making it; however, things take a turn when Jonathan returns home to recuperate from an injury. He’s sober and desperate to fix his mistakes with Kennedy and get to know his daughter. But can Kennedy really trust Jonathan to stick around? After all these years, these two might still love each other, but if Jonathan chooses his old life, she and Maddie won’t survive the heartbreak.
Over the course of alternating chapters between Kennedy’s and Jonathan’s POVs, as well as moving from present to past, we learn the origins of their relationship, the huge cost they pay of Jonathan’s fame, and the potential for reconcilliation.
What J.M. does in Ghosted is really quite brilliant. With the way she structures this story, we get the totality of Kennedy’s and Jonathan’s relationship in their perspectives, from beginning to end, in the midst of all the ups and downs. This works to infuse the second-chance romance with so much context and makes us readers even more emotionally invested. We watch these two characters grow up, grow apart, and then eventually come back together when they are better able to be equal parts of the relationship.
On top of that Kennedy and Jonathan are very sympathetic characters. At her core, Kennedy is a giver. She derives the most joy from ensuring that those she loves are well and happy. Kennedy will do whatever she must to make it happen. The thing is, with the way Jonathan grows up, he’s starved for that sort of love and (unfortunately) is unable to nurture Kennedy in the same way. So she gives and gives and gives, at cost to her own personal and professional wellbeing. And what really prompts Kennedy to leave Jonathan isn’t concern for herself, but for her (then unborn) child.
I know the way I’ve characterized Jonathan makes him sound like a class-A jerk, and he has his asshole moments. Jonathan is how I imagine almost every actor in a major franchise that I’ve swooned over. He’s someone who loves the craft of acting and gets swept away by the somewhat unexpected fame that comes along with it. In an attempt to fit in with the Hollywood scene, self-medicate, and deal with the fame, Jonathan relies heavily on drugs and alcohol, sacrificing his relationship with Kennedy in the process. Yes, it does take a lot of time for Jonathan to realize how he’s done Kennedy wrong. But once he does, he gets himself together so he can be in a position to care for the girls he loves.
“I’m sorry for the way I hurt you,” he says. “Sorry for everything I did that led us to this point. And I get it, you know, if you hate me. Wouldn’t blame you at all. But I just need to tell you…I need you to know…that even when I was completely fucked up, I never once stopped loving you.”
Those words, they rip the air from my lungs. I clench my hands into fists, the bronze coin digging into my palm.
“I don’t expect you’ll believe that.” He shoves up from my car, his eyes finally meeting mine, and they’re bright blue and so clear, but it only lasts a few seconds before his gaze returns to the ground. “But that’s not the point. Point is, I’m not perfect, but I’m doing the best I can. I don’t know shit about being a father, but I hope you’ll give me the chance to try. Tomorrow…the next day…someday…whenever it is, I’ll be there.”
He starts to walk away with that, like he’s said all he can and he has nothing more to offer.
“Jonathan,” I call out. “Your chip.”
“I know how I’m doing. I don’t need a token to tell me, but maybe you do, so keep it.”
I stare down at the coin in the glow of the streetlight. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where he’s going or how long he really plans to stay. At the moment, I don’t know much of anything, except that he’s here, in front of me, telling me everything I’ve yearned to hear for a long, long time, and I’m letting him walk away like it all means nothing.
“What’s wrong with your washer and dryer?”
“One leaks, the other doesn’t heat.”
He grows eerily quiet as I start washing dishes. When I glance at him, I see he’s looking around, his brow furrowed.
“Why do you live here?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“It’s not much.”
“It’s enough,” I say, “for us, anyway. I work in a grocery store, you know. This is what it pays for.”
“Maybe because I never went to college like I was supposed to, so I do whatever I have to do.”
Turning, I look at him again. He’s staring at me with confusion.
“I send money,” he says. “It should be enough.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“Why, Jonathan? You’re seriously asking me why?”
“Look, I’m just saying—”
“I know what you’re saying, but we do just fine without your money.”
“Come on, don’t be that way, K.”
“That way. I want to help.”
“So be a father, not a paycheck.”
Of course, the added dimension of five-year-old Maddie complicates things. Kennedy is ferociously protective of her daughter, most especially from Jonathan and his promises. Little by little Kennedy opens up and Jonathan takes those opportunities to prove himself, first as a father and then as a lover. (One of my favorite moments is when Jonathan takes Maddie to a Breezeo convention and they have the best day together! It’s so sweet.)
We eat breakfast. They chat. They laugh. I mourn. I mourn the years they lost, the time that was wasted, the love that maybe just wasn’t quite enough to overcome his demons sooner. Every smile they share today is the product of years of tears, of years of fighting and struggling and hoping and mourning but never, ever, ever quitting or giving up, because we’re here. And maybe it won’t last, I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow something will happen and the tears will come back, but I’m grateful for the moment, knowing he loves her more than anything.
But what happens when Jonathan’s Hollywood circle starts to encroach on what he’s building with Kennedy and Maddie? We’re talking a crazy-jealous co-star, a manipulative manager, and ill-mannered paparazzi. This time around, there is an HEA. Unlike in his youth, Jonathan is better equipped to protect himself and Kennedy.
If I’m to offer any critique, it’s actually about Kennedy in the end. After all she sacrifices for Jonathan, I wish she would have reclaimed for herself some of what she gave up–maybe a book deal or exploring possibilities as a screenwriter. It seems like, in the end, her life still revolves around Jonathan. What about her agency? I feel heartbreak and anger for Kennedy because goodness knows that she deserves better.
Similarly, it feels like the past chapters drag on for too long. It isn’t until about 80% that we fully comprehend how Kennedy and Jonathan’s relationship ends the first time around. I would have wanted to begin the last half of the book knowing fully what happened between these two in California and why Kennedy leaves. With that full understanding, the reader can then pivot to focus on Jonathan/Kennedy journey back to each other in the present.
Ghosted is MUSTREAD for contemporary romance fans, especially if you like second-chance romance, coming of age stories, and romances featuring bad-boys who turn good for the women they love. Honestly, if you’ve ever been part of a fandom, Ghosted will appeal to your fangirl feels. Add it to your TBR and grab your copy today!
Many thanks to the author for an advanced review copy.