Mack’s a high school drop out, and he’s been tasked with a mission by his soon-to-be-deployed friend Tony, and that’s to take care of his sister CeCe. Mack’s skeptical of Tony’s request, part because he doesn’t think he’s good enough to take care of CeCe and part because he thinks CeCe is a knockout and the kind of girl he dreams about. In other words, he’s afraid to get too close, ruin his chances with her, and ruin his friendship with Tony all together.
The thing is, though, Mack lets himself get close to CeCe, and soon, they’re a couple. Soon, he’s falling head over heels with her, and he knows she’s the only girl for him. Even though she doesn’t share some of the passions he does, he wants to be with her. But he’s also afraid to let her in on his secrets and on his past.
Mack’s biggest talent, and the one thing he thrives on, is his ability to train dogs, specifically pits. When he finds a pit who has been abandoned, he takes her in and wants to rehabilitate her. This scares CeCe, who had been a victim of a dog attack before. But slowly, Mack turns CeCe around and teaches her that even a dog with a reputation can be loved. She believes him so much that she wants to adopt the rescue, which Mack named Boo. And that’s when the story takes off.
It takes little time before Mack finds himself in prison, then finds himself in solitary confinement, then finds himself in the position to completely change his life around using his talents. But he also knows he’s really screwed up his future. He worries he’ll never get to be with CeCe again. He doesn’t know if he can live with that, either.
Stay with Me is a fast-paced, urban novel that will appeal to fans of Simone Elkeles, as well as those who like their stories with edge. The characters in this story are what you’d imagine them to be: hard, passionate, and gritty. They’re all good at the core, though, even if they make huge mistakes. That’s what I liked about this book so much, though: as readers, we know that these are all good characters and that they make mistakes and that they are learning from them. As much as we get to know Mack’s huge mistake from his perspective, we also learn that Tony’s decision to enlist as a combat medic ends up being quite a bit of a mistake. CeCe’s no perfect girl, either. She’s struggling with a home life that’s anything but perfect, and she knows that whatever happens to her brother overseas will inevitably impact what goes on at home with her and her alcoholic mother.
Griffin’s book is a plot-driven narrative, but he doesn’t sacrifice character development. I loved how the three main characters in this story grew into themselves and one another over the course of the story, and I felt like it was extremely authentic. There was no ah ha moment for them. The events in their lives forced them to adapt, which inevitably forced them to grow. They became stronger for that.
The romance in this book is simultaneously hot and sweet, which is why I think this book will appeal to fans of Elkeles’s titles. Although CeCe and Mack seem to get together quickly, despite Mack’s initial reluctance due to his own history and reputation, it doesn’t feel false or contrived. Big brother Tony had a hitch they would be good together, and it simply took them actually being alone together for things to start. The way their relationship developed felt real, too, as it started slow and tenuous but rapidly moved into something more. If I were being honest, though, I’d say I felt that Mack was a little too in love immediately and I felt that, at times, he became a little too involved with the idea of CeCe, rather than the true CeCe. This ends up being the thing, of course, that helps him power through his time in jail.
Despite all of the things that really worked for me in this book, there was almost an over reliance on happenstance in the last third of the book. While Mack’s in jail, he has the opportunity to work with an organization that uses criminals to rehabilitate abused and neglected dogs. It’s perfect for him, and though this sort of organization doesn’t really exist, Griffin notes at the end of the novel that such things have been tried before and proven successful both for the animal and for the criminal who gains a sense of self and responsibility — and frankly, I thought this element of the story was important because it shows that even “broken” people can be fixed. However, the dog that Mack ends up working with and training to adoptability ends up becoming a convenient tool to tying him back with CeCe. See, when he goes to jail, he avoids CeCe as much as possible, but in working through this program, he’s brought back to her in a way that inevitably changes their relationship. It felt too convenient and was too predictable. For a novel that kept me surprised and engaged, this last third fell apart for me because it went too much down the obvious path.
Can I also say that this cover is fantastic? What a perfectly fitting cover to the story, and I think it has mega appeal to the intended readership. Hand this book off to your urban contemporary readers. I think this will have appeal to those who like a good romance story, as well as those who like stories that include crime. In my community, my teens are very interested in stories about gangs, and even though this book doesn’t tread into that territory, I know this book will find a good readership with that audience. It’s a story about change and growth and overcoming one’s past, which is precisely what I think appeals to fans of that genre/niche. This is a fast paced story, and I think despite the length, it will appeal to more reluctant readers.
Review copy picked up at ALA. Stay with Me will be available September 8.