It's a timeless tale to which almost everyone can relate: the loss of a love to choices that are later regretted, sometimes for the rest of your life. When fate rolls the dice to put a second chance in our path, we suffer and celebrate the agonizing hope that, perhaps, this time our choice will be the right one.
John Kadel is dying, but he refuses to address that truth. Ensconced in a nursing home for the destitute in a rundown neighborhood in an unnamed city (in his acknowledgements, author Greg M. Sarwa identifies it as Krakow in his native Poland), John lives only in the moment. After years spent abroad engaged in activities of dubious legality, John has returned to the city of his youth to spend his decline playing chess with his neighbor Frank from across the hall and escaping memories of his mysterious painful past in book after book.
Then the universe throws John a curve. As he bends over to tie a stubborn shoelace on one of his forays to the atmospheric Old Town, he is knocked to the pavement by another hurrying pedestrian. It is a lovely older woman, one whom John recognizes instantly by voice and face as Agatha, the personification of the pain he has spent a lifetime trying to escape. The two slowly
rekindle a relationship that is also of the moment, loath to bring too much of their past to the surface
and filled with tentative longing to hold a piece of the happiness they once knew in their hands again, if only briefly.
Sarwa brings a deft sense of immediacy to this bittersweet tale of second chances more often seen in short fiction than in novels. Maintaining that ambience of the now, even as he alternates John's present with flashbacks to the history he shares with Agatha, keeps readers in the moment with John every step.
The city itself is very nearly a third main character in If Only I Could... Sarwa raises Old Town and The Square up around the reader, enveloping us in a symphony of sight and sound that serves as much more than a mere backdrop to too-fresh memories of long ago. Recommended for fans of Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook