Review: Rat Park by Marina Vivancos

Dominic has lived with an empty ache inside him for as long as he could remember. Maybe it started when he was six, hiding beneath his blankets as the wild animal noises of one of mom’s parties echoed in his head. Maybe it began the first time an adult plied him with drinks just to watch him stumble about.

Or, maybe, it was that he couldn’t even imagine what being loved should feel like.

Drugs washed all that away. It didn’t cure the ache, but it made him forget it for a while. Anything was better than being conscious. Than being himself. But life had another hard lesson for him: With drugs, the only way is down.

Dominic hits rock bottom when he’s twenty-three. Turns out, rock bottom looks a lot like the bars of a jail cell. With little left but his own thoughts, Dominic has to decide: Is this what I want for the rest of my life?

The world has never been kind to Dominic, but when he meets the Romeros, he wonders if that is about to change. Officer Catalina Romero seems to see something in Dominic that he is sure isn’t there. The more she pulls him towards her family, however, the harder it is not to go.

All his resistance disappears under the force that is Flor Romero. Spitfire, stubborn Flor—even at sixteen, he refuses to be taken lightly. As he grows older, putting a stop to what Flor obviously wants to happen between them is harder than Dominic would ever want to admit.

Dominic knows that he has too many demons to let anybody get too close. But life doesn’t prepare him for Flor, who just might be ready to fight tooth and nail for a place in Dominic’s life—and his heart.

The question is, will Dominic’s past keep him from his future?

I've talked before about my day job which by all accounts should've kept me far, far away from this book, but I wanted to try this author so despite the fact that I average a Dominic a week I hit the request button. The job can be a grind but sometimes I get one that I really feel like I helped, that I believe will turn it around and that makes it worthwhile.

The problem with books that deal with this topic and population is so many of them get it wrong. They make it about the addiction or the mental illness or the anger or their trust issues or the isolation and loneliness or the negative self-image or the past or the shitshow of a family when in reality it's an amalgamation of some or all of it with things thrown in that are unique to each person. It's a big ask for an author to be that thorough which is why I usually avoid books of this nature.

The commonality amongst the people I see is wanting, no craving, a connection with someone else and those are the ties that bind us all together and something Vivancos strove to stress which resonated with me.

Some are honest about it, some bluster and posture and even lie about it but save a few, they all want it, but how to attain it is the question. The "normal" conversation in this book is one I have frequently and the problem with "normal" is twofold: (a) what is normal and (b) how can one sustain "normal" when all one's ever known is dysfunction? Shitty childhood, shitty parent(s), shitty coping skills, mostly shitty friends that doubles down on itself with abuse, addiction, dropping out of school and maybe a jail stint or two thereby making the future look bleak. When you don't know a thing it's hard to envision it and even harder to strive for it without a little help.

That is the crux of Rat Park and what Vivancos illustrated so deftly: Dominic's inner turmoil and it's constancy. She got that so right. Every single day he believes the rug will be pulled from under him and everything will turn to shit again. Because that's what he believes he deserves. But also, that's all he's ever known and there is safety in that. Drugs take the edge off and make everything a pink fluffy cloud of easy for a little while. Plus, he knows how to be an addict. He knows how to live that life.

Living outside of that, being happy, being loved, being sober, being wanted are all foreign to him. He can't trust that it's anything more than a mirage, fleeting. It's no wonder he's afraid to reach for it because what if he gets used to it and it all goes away? Or worse, what if he fucks it up? Which makes some days harder to resist the itch, some easier, some days he wins the battle and some days he loses, but that doesn't make him a loser. It makes him human.

This internal uphill battle of his requires oodles of encouragement, acceptance and support which he gets from the Romeros. The Romeros take him in, make him part of their family which taps into one of my favorite themes: making a family of one's own choosing.

Flor is only 16 when they meet. It wasn't love at first sight for Dominic but I think it was for Flor. Time passes, as it's wont to do. Flor grows up. They crash into each other. Dominic has a setback. The Romeros are steadfast. Flor goes to college. Dominic finds a career and slowly things evolve not just between he and Flor but he begins to build a new life for himself, one he can be proud of. 

I know that may sound terribly boring but it truly wasn't. There are heartbreaking moments but by and large Rat Park is an uplifting story of resiliency and love that was romantic, hopeful and gave me that warm tingly feeling in my chest when I really connect to a book.

It was indescribably moving to watch Dominic fall in love and get to do things he's never gotten to do like boogie board or even going to the beach or planning a date or flying on an airplane or being someone's boyfriend. Sometimes he gets it wrong and sometimes Flor gets it wrong but they work it out because they love each other. That realism will stick with me as will the chemistry between them that was enriched by their visceral connection to one another.

Many things were striking about Vivancos' writing style including the fluid passage of time and development of her characters but it was her ability to give each a distinct voice that I found most impressive. Even more so was how their voices started to meld as the narrative evolved; they begin to incorporate words and phrases of the other's which is something that happens in real life but rarely makes it to the page.

Lastly, I appreciated how she focused on rehabilitation over punishment as a treatment methodology for addiction. It takes a village and that village is usually not found in a correctional facility. Her depiction of addiction was not only honest but underscored the importance of compassion and latitude needed to encourage recovery and that's a message that never gets old.

If you enjoy hurt/comfort, slow burns, opposites attract or gritty romances that realistically portray overcoming adversity, give Rat Park a try.

A copy was provided in exchange for an honest review.

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