Damaged Goods is not your typical romance story. Anyone who’s read any of L. J. Shen’s books before could tell you that this is an author who’s not afraid to dip into the darker side of the romance world, with stories that feature anything from bully romance plots to forbidden love stories, all with a side of morally grey characters, excessive wealth and a lot of angst along the way. Damaged Goods definitely holds onto the angst, but it also delivers a heart-wrenchingly emotional and incredibly raw story of addiction and recovery that remains compelling, even through some devastating narrative gut punches.
Nineteen-year-old Bailey Followhill has always been perfect. She’s the model student, the goody-two shoes, the sweet and charitable one you can always depend on, especially when compared to her trouble-making older sister. All of Bailey’s hard work and dedication has paid off by landing her a coveted place at the prestigious Juilliard, but soon Bailey finds out that her best isn’t enough and, as she pushes her body to its very limits and comes to rely on prescription drugs to help her through each day, it’s not long before her seemingly-perfect life begins to fray.
Lev Cole is the golden child. He’s the quarterback and team captain who’s firmly on the NFL track, but it’s not the path he would choose for himself. In fact, the only two things that Lev cares about – Bailey, and a career as a fighter jet pilot – are both out of reach, and Lev is coasting through his final year of high school with a girlfriend he doesn’t love and a future he doesn’t value. But Lev is done living the life that others have chosen for him, and when Bailey returns home from New York with her own battle to face, Lev decides it’s finally time to go after what he wants for once. The question is, can he save his best friend and his dream before too much damage is done?
We’re not friends. We’re two people obsessed with each other, holding each other back.”
The first thing to know when you pick up this book is that it covers a lot of difficult topics, chief among them being addiction, prescription drug abuse, grief and death (you can find a full list of trigger warnings for this book ). The second thing to note is that Damaged Goods is the fourth book in the All Saints High series, itself a spin-off of the Sinners & Saints series, and while you don’t need to have read all of the books that came before to read this one, it does mean that there’s a lot of missing history and context propping up this novel, which is both a good and a bad thing in this case.
If you’ve read the books that came before this one, you will have read not only Bailey and Lev’s siblings’ stories, but also those of their parents, and their parents’ friends. In their siblings’ stories in particular, Bailey and Lev have been present in the background, their lifelong friendship, burgeoning relationship and perfect status neatly established well before their story came to be told in Damaged Goods. If, however, this novel marks your first entry into Shen’s All Saintsuniverse, it’s a history that feels very distant to the characters that we meet and spend time with here. By the time we meet Lev and Bailey in their own right, these two have already formed and cemented their messy, emotional, co-dependent and borderline toxic relationship, and knowledge of the events that have helped shape this (namely the plots of Pretty Reckless and Brutal Knight) are more or less taken for granted.
Still, as much as I wish we’d seen more of Bailey and Lev as the best friends they were before life and death and trauma shifted their relationship into a newer, more emotionally-tangled direction, Damaged Goods does a great job of exploring all of the nuances of Lev and Bailey’s intense connection so that their angry, tense and sometimes downright brutal back and forth makes a painfully inevitable sort of sense. It’s a very insular sort of story that focuses almost entirely on the push and pull between Bailey and Lev and the way that their relationship is challenged by Bailey’s addiction and Lev’s attempts to help. But it’s clear that, throughout everything, there is a deep love for the other from both characters, and that gives readers a hope to hold on to, even when Bailey and Lev are both at their worst.
This is definitely not an easy read, and there are a few niggles that keep you from fully immersing yourself in the story, from clunky dialogue and underdeveloped side plots to narrative payoffs that wrap up just a little too quickly. But it’s also undeniably a wholly engrossing novel, and a gripping read that I couldn’t put down. Damaged Goods is raw and painful and devastating, yes, but while it explores some of life’s darker moments, it also offers its readers some hope and healing in the aftermath. Ultimately this novel serves as an uplifting send-off to a heartbreaking and difficult story featuring two characters you really, really want to see pull through in the end.
Damaged Goods was published by Penguin on 25 January 2024