David Cristofano’s THE EXCEPTIONS is much more than a fine sophomore effort. His debut novel, THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE, won critical accolades that included an Edgar Award nomination. It told the story of a young lady named Melody Grace McCartney who, at six years of age and in the company of her parents, wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time and inadvertently witnessed an act of unspeakable violence. That incident resulted in Melody and her parents being placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program and changing locales and names the way other families change jobs and cars. Melody’s parents ultimately lost their lives as the result of a monumental error, but Melody continued in the program, fashioning a life under a series of different identities until a mysterious young man approached her and offered her a different choice.
"What Cristofano has done is create a dark and exceptional anti-hero, one whose actions in general can be neither excused nor condoned, yet who has a core of decency, however small, that may in the end save his soul. Or not."
THE EXCEPTIONS shows a different version of those events. It was Jonathan Bovaro’s father, a crime lord, who committed the violent act that Melody and her parents witnessed, and it was Jonathan who, as a young boy, saw the family flee the scene of the incident and provide the identification that ultimately enabled his family to trace Melody and her family, and thus place them in mortal danger over the course of decades. Yet it is Jonathan who has been haunted by Melody’s face --- her very existence --- across the years that stretch from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Jonathan is aware of one simple truth: if he had kept his silence on that fateful Sunday morning when his father committed the heinous crime that was witnessed by the McCartneys, Melody’s parents would be alive and she never would have been placed in danger. What Jonathan resolves, not by words so much as by actions, is that he will protect her even as he ironically becomes her pursuer.
However, something has to give at some point. And Jonathan is not an angel by any means. He jockeys for position within his crime family and, in most cases, does that which is expected of him. There is but this one assignment --- Melody --- that can never be completed. What Cristofano has done is create a dark and exceptional anti-hero, one whose actions in general can be neither excused nor condoned, yet who has a core of decency, however small, that may in the end save his soul. Or not.
THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE and THE EXCEPTIONS are complete in and of themselves, yet almost demand to be read together. The former is probably best read first --- following the order in which Cristofano wrote the books --- with the latter being read immediately afterward. If it’s THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE that tugs you into the occasionally violent story of this erstwhile love affair, it's THE EXCEPTIONS that lifts and removes the occasional veil behind the parts of the story not related in THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE. Reading either, though, will whet your appetite for the other, as well as for future efforts by this extremely talented author.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 22, 2012