Emely Donnovan is the millionaire owner of a stockbroking company. She worked her way to the top of her field through determination and ingenuity, but she didn't get there without playing a little dirty from time to time. Those decisions come back to haunt her when the former owners of a company she took out from under them come looking for revenge.
Ronald and John Langdon kidnap Emely with the intention of murdering her in retribution for her role in causing them to loose the family business. Sensing that John is the easier target, Emely tries to reason with him and buy her way out of the situation by offering him money. Still, the brothers bury her alive, but John immediately begins to have misgivings. He returns to the grave site to "rescue" her, but rather than letting her go, he decides to hold her captive in the family's run-down mansion in the middle of the woods. The two million dollars she offered him is a drop in the bucket compared to what he lost, so John hatches a scheme to use Emely's expertise in stockbroking to earn back all the money she took from him. He just didn't expect to fall in love with her in the process.
I'm not entirely sure where to start with expressing my feelings about this book. Only the Strongest Survive was by far one of the most unusual books I've ever read, but I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing. First, I've never read a book where I didn't really like any of the characters. Since I primarily read for pleasure, I much prefer having at least one or two characters that I feel compelled to root for, because without that, it's all but impossible for me to truly enjoy it. The supporting players are all rather one-dimensional and unrelatable, never moving me in any way except perhaps to feel like smacking a few of them for their selfish, opportunistic attitudes. When Emely disappears, most of them spend the remainder of the story thinking about how they can use this to their advantage, rather than actually being concerned for her safety and trying to find her, which doesn't speak much to her character either. The only one who isn't really like this is Blake, Emely's right-hand man and the one who takes over the management of her company in her absence. He was the only semi-likable character in the whole story which is ironic, considering that he's a lawyer, but he was still too dull to really stand out. Everyone else is quite simply self-absorbed and/or obsessed with money, lust, power, prestige and how they can get more of these things, rather than anyone truly caring about their fellow human beings in any capacity.
I sympathized with Emely to the extent that I don't think anyone deserves to be kidnapped, raped, buried alive, and then held captive for four months. We gradually learn about her past in flashbacks as a reporter interviews various people while trying to piece together a story following her disappearance. Emely spent her entire childhood in an orphanage and during her early adult life seemed to be a fairly admirable person. She knew what it was like to be poor, but pulled herself up by her bootstraps to follow her dream of becoming a stockbroker and eventually, started her own company. However, somewhere along the way (and to be honest I'm not sure where), she seemed to loose sight of her humble roots and became a greedy, conniving, workaholic businesswoman who formed few attachments and literally would do anything to make her next million. She didn't seem to care how her actions affected the people who owned or worked for the companies she took over through underhanded means as long as she was making a profit from it. Her experience with John made her think a little more deeply about her work, at least from the standpoint of never taking a break from it, but even after she finally returns, I was not in any way led to believe that she actually changed the way in which she does business. After Emely was abducted by the Langdon brothers, the tough, take-no-prisoners businesswoman seemed to fly out the window. She goes on some fairly long crying jags, and although I can't blame her under the circumstances, it seemed somewhat inconsistent with her character. She makes some attempts to find a way of escape, but as she grows more and more sympathetic toward John, she simply stops all together until the very end. At that point, the strong fighter returns as she battles Ronald tooth and nail like a madwoman whose life depends on it (and it did), but it just left me feeling confused as to why she never unleashed her fury with the same fervor on John. Since she could obviously do it when she wanted to, it seemed like a weak excuse for creating a "romance" between Emely and John.
When the story begins, John is not a nice person at all. He conspired with his brother to kidnap and murder Emely for taking their company from them which seemed a bit extreme to me. There are lots of people in the world who loose everything, and yet don't set out to torture and kill the person they feel was responsible. This leads me to believe that they were simply mentally unstable to begin with. In an inebriated state, John also rapes Emely before he and his brother bury her alive. If this hadn't happened, or if John had shown more compassion earlier in the story, I might have been able to buy into the "romance" angle a little more. As is, I think he "rescued" Emely only because he had developed an obsession with her and the money she offered him, rather than feeling guilty or for any altruistic reasons. During the early weeks as John holds Emely captive, his behavior is just weird and creepy. He has severe passive/aggressive tendencies, sometimes acting nice and at others being a real brute. As John grows more and more fond of Emely, he begins to lighten up, and if it were in any other context, I could honestly say he began to exhibit the characteristics of an ideal lover: he was gentle with her, he cooked Emely fabulous meals, he took her on relaxing walks in the woods, and even bought her a puppy. However, all of that still wasn't enough to make me forget that this man participated in kidnapping, rape, attempted murder, and had been holding Emely captive for four months, forcing her to make investments for him, not to mention the harsh manner in which he treated several prostitutes during the first half of the book. I'm all for a good redemption story, and this appears to be what the author was aiming for, the idea that John's love for Emely changed him. Still, I just couldn't quite bring myself to fully buy it. I do believe that John's actions on Emely's behalf at the end of the book were from the heart, but the notion that he had changed so drastically in such a short time was not entirely credible to me.
Under any other circumstances, I might have actually liked John and Emely as a couple, but as written, I felt their supposed "romance" reeked of Stockholm Syndrome. Initially, I think Emely started being nice to John in order to gain his trust in hopes that he might let his guard down, but it didn't take long for her to become physically attracted to him and feel sympathetic toward him. In fact, their first friendly talks seems to come from out of nowhere. She does go through a period of confusion and disgust over her feelings for him, but again, in fairly short order, she seems to come to terms with it and things progress even further between them. Oddly, at this point, Emely seems to suffer few, if any, ill effects from nearly being murdered by burying alive, not to mention the earlier rape. Stockholm Syndrome is certainly a valid psychological condition, and if the author had played it that way, I might have been more accepting of this part of the story as well. However, as there is no indication of this phenomena in the narrative, it appears that the reader is simply expected to accept John and Emely's relationship as a true love match.
In addition to my issues with the characters, there were a number of poorly explained plot points. I mentioned earlier Emely's resistance of Ronald, but not John. During that fight, she had a couple of what we in the romance world call TSTL (too stupid to live) moments. Not once, but twice, she managed to get a gun away from him, and yet rather than using it to shoot him or at least try to fend him off, she instead carelessly throws it away. It seemed like a weak attempt to draw out the climax longer than necessary. Also Emely supposedly has a boyfriend, but he never turns up as a character in the story. This didn't make sense to me, because it seems to me that if he cared for her, he would be even more concerned about her whereabouts than her employees or a random reporter. Lastly, I don't think there was a single male character in this story, from the doorman at Emely's office building on up to John himself, who didn't lust after her in some capacity. I'm not quite sure what to make of that. Emely didn't seem that magnetically attractive to me, but it certainly plays right into the stereotype of men never thinking about anything but sex.
The final issue I had with this book is the writing. I began it completely baffled by the perspective. It flips around from one character to another (including minor bit players) so rapidly I was about to get whiplash, and then there are parts that are more from the narrator's (author's) viewpoint. After doing a little research, I believe this is what is known as third person omniscient point of view. I have very little experience with this writing style, but can say unequivocally that it isn't a favorite of mine. Without the deep POV that I crave in my reading, there is just too much distance between the characters and the reader, leaving me not really caring a great deal what happens to any of them. Even still, this perspective might have been OK except that a large part of the narrative is also written in a passive voice which only served to make me feel further distanced from the story. The stockbroking details are a little dry and not woven into the narrative as seamlessly as they could be, and the dialog doesn't always have the natural flow of normal conversation either. My overall sense of the writing style is of a story that is being told to me in a news reporting style rather than one that I could really sink my teeth into and experience on a deep emotional level.
And yet, in spite of all my criticisms and the story itself not really being my cup of tea, I still kept reading, but this is one of those unusual cases where I'm not entirely sure why. There were times when it was so dull I felt like I was slogging through a swamp and other times when it was more interesting and suspenseful. I kept getting the nagging feeling that there might be some deeper hidden meaning here like one often finds in literary fiction, but as anything of that nature managed to elude me, perhaps it was merely my analytical brain trying to make sense out of an otherwise bizarre story. For me, this book was like the car wreck by the side of the road that draws your gaze despite your best efforts to look away. Even when I was bored with it or despising the characters, I still had a morbid fascination with wanting to know how it ended. Even as I sit here writing the final words of this review, I am still rather undecided as to how to rate it, so I think I am going to settle on the exact middle of the road rating of 2.5 stars. Mr. Fox made me want to like John and Emely in spite of mostly not liking them. The story itself also still haunts me like a specter that must be exorcised. Even if I can't say that I truly enjoyed it, and even if the writing could have been better, I have a feeling this puzzlingly peculiar tale will linger in my memory for a while. I figure it must take some storytelling skill to make me feel that way, so it seems, in that capacity, the author has done his job well.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook