"The Second Time We Met" (Grand Central Publishing), by Leila Cobo: On a rainy evening in a small Colombian town, 16-year-old Rita Ortiz gets up from bed to close her bedroom window and meets the eyes of a young man dressed in fatigues. He smiles and she freezes in panic.
Quiet and studious, the main character in Leila Cobo's "The Second Time We Met" isn't one to seek out trouble. Rita's parents warn her not to talk to the guerrillas armed with rifles and lurking along their streets. But Lucas hardly seems dangerous: He's a boy dressed in a warrior's clothes who took refuge among rebels after being abused at home.
The brief glance they exchange by her window quickly unravels into a clandestine affair and ends abruptly when the guerrillas decide to leave. Lucas wants Rita to go with him, but she refuses. It's only after he is gone, leaving her with just a leopard tooth necklace he kept for protection, that Rita learns she is pregnant. She is taken to an orphanage, where she gives birth to the child, and never sees him again.
Cobo's second novel is a graceful, skillfully woven tale of Rita and the son who comes to find her more than two decades later. By then, their lives are remarkably distant: Asher Sebastian Stone is the adopted son of a Jewish couple from California whose search for his biological mother is sparked after nearly losing his life in a car accident. Rita, meanwhile, has seemingly disappeared since giving birth, doing everything in her power to erase a painful part of her past.
Through Rita, Cobo explores the human toll of a violent chapter in Colombia's history. It isn't just taboo to bear the child of a guerrilla; it could put the livelihood of her entire family in jeopardy. Her rigid parents also give her little choice but to hide any interest she has in boys and flee as soon as her pregnancy begins to show. Lucas, meanwhile, is in many ways twice a victim, first to his father's unrelenting blows and then to his country's civil strife. The guerrillas take him in like family, but they are both his savior and his torment.
Asher's life is seemingly untouched by such hardships. He is a college soccer star with successful, doting parents. He does not speak Spanish and has never been to Colombia. But while recovering from a near-fatal car accident, he begins to ask questions about his past.
His journey compellingly tells of the hardship of trying to find and connect with a past and roots one does not know. It is equally trying for his adoptive parents, who both welcome and encourage his search, but also worry about the effect it will have on their relationship with the son they love.
Cobo is the executive director of Latin content and programming for Billboard. Her debut novel, "Tell Me Something True," traces similar themes of the relationship between mother and child, self-discovery and a search to uncover a secret past. "The Second Time We Met" is a beautifully well-told second novel that will captivate readers once again.