REVIEW: Shining in the Sun by Alex Beecroft
Dear Ms. Beecroft:
When Sarah Frantz recommended this book to me, I knew that agreeing to review it would finally ensure that I read one of your books sooner rather than later (review books take precedence over pure leisure books in my personal hierarchy of reading these days). That it is a contemporary made it even more appealing, since I am on a contemporary kick right now and am always looking for good contemporary Romances that don't segue into Rom Suspense or Paranormal or UF or any other subgenre. I hesitate to use the term straight contemporary Romance to describe Shining in the Sun, but at the same time I do not want to suggest that the central appeal of this book is that its protagonists are two men. Much of what I enjoyed about Shining in the Sun is the balance between issues of sexual and personal identity and strong genre storytelling conventions. While I had a number of issues with the book, I was engaged enough to want to dig through my digital TBR pile for False Colors before another review book claims my time.
Ptolemy "Alec" St. John-Goodchilde is desperately trying to get out of town for the one month a year he has to himself when his beloved but temperamental Morgan Roaster stalls in summer traffic. Frustrated with his mother's insistence that she join him (and bring his fiancée, Caroline) on holiday, embarrassed about his car's inefficiencies, and generally itching to get out on the boat that will take him wherever he wants to go over the next glorious month of solitude, Alec kills time while his car is at the mechanic's at a ramshackle beachside restaurant. He is surprised by the delicacy of fish in his fish and chips, but even more so by the figure of a surfer in the water, whose grace and talent strikes Alec as the embodiment of the unmitigated freedom Alec only gets to indulge in for 1/12th of the year. That the surfer "stood with his arms outstretched likethe Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce," is a good indicator of the gilded chains that claim Alec's time and attention.
Yes, Alec is a snob, which makes it even more surprising when he stops the surfer passing his table with what has to be the worst line ever uttered: "Don't go past. Please. Sit down and drink with me. If you go past- If you go past, I think I'll die." That Alec knows this is a horrible line doesn't faze him as much as the fact that he actually said it. Darren Stokes is surprised, as well, not at the fact that this well-bred looking man hailed him over, since that happened quite regularly (and it's how he financially survives the summer), but at the apparent guilelessness in the man's "blue slate eyes," – the "awe, like someone witnessing the second coming of Christ," not a man looking for a guy like Darren.
And, in fact, Alec doesn't really know what he's doing or what he wants, just that there's something in Darren's grace and daring on that surfboard that calls to him. Darren, on the other hand, is calculating odds and possibilities right from the start (and gives Alec a fake first name to protect himself). It wasn't so long ago that he emerged from the hospital after almost losing his hands and his life to his former lover, a man named Max who seemed to have no qualms about hurting Darren and then buying him off with expensive gifts and money. While Max was never charged with almost killing Darren, Darren is extremely wary of a guy like Alec, whose surface level innocence could be a clever disguise for some really twisted stuff underneath. But still, it's summer, so if this upscale good-looking guy wants to buy him a beer and take a surfing lesson or two, why not?
What follows is the development of a tentative friendship and relationship between two men, one of whom suspected his true sexual identity but never acted on it, and the other whose sexuality is one of the few settled things in his life. Each man must grow and change, and the trajectory of their romantic involvement mirrors the evolution of their personal journeys. Alec has kept to the "straight and narrow" in his life, literally, with a fiancée who is a good friend but hardly a great passion, a mother who loves Alec but cannot release him from her controlling attention, and a family business that seems to fit his strengths but does not fulfill him at any deep level. Darren spends most of his year stocking groceries, minding the grandmother who raised him, and trying to avoid his bullying thug of a father and sniveling addict of a brother, both of whom pose myriad dangers to Darren and his grandmother. Were it not for Alec's detour into Cornwall, these two would likely never have met or had any substantial relationship. And even with the exceptional circumstances (aka the vacation romance trope), the road is hardly smooth.
Alec, for example, must come to terms with a sexual attraction he never indulged past furtive glances and harshly disciplined wonderings. And Darren must come to terms with the fear from his experience with Max, his own independent pride, and the scary risks of trusting another person to take care of him. In many ways Shining in the Sun reminded me of the classic rich man rescuing the poor woman romance trope, although here both Alec and Darren need a certain level of rescuing, and their roles are not by any means stereotypical mirrors of straight Romance protagonists. Alec may have financial power, but it's only when he is away from his normal life, out near or in the water, that he comes into his own: "This seemed a different Alec. Here, in near solitude, he appeared less fragile, less anxious. Solidity poured into him, as if he only became real when no one was watching. " And Darren, who lives on the edge of destitution, has a sexual and life experience that makes him perhaps wiser and more adaptable than Alec.
In fact, what I enjoyed most about Shining in the Sun was the way so many genre stereotypes were in play in the book (some more successfully than others), from Alec's fiancée and mother, both of whom turn out to be a bit more layered and more substantive than they first seem, to Darren's ex-lover, who appears later in the book in a way that downright shocked me. I am still not sure how to interpret the revelations about Max (and Darren's ultimate feelings about the whole situation), whether it is a diminishment of Darren's experience or an insightful representation, but on the surface, at least, it was a massive overthrow of a number of genre and sexual tropes, and I did not expect the turn of events at all. I did find Darren's brother and father to be relatively one-dimensional characters (and caricatures), and Darren's black best friend was a reversed but not, in my opinion, subverted stereotype, but at least the women were not universally demonized in the novel as "evil stepmother' figures.
Further, I appreciated that the relationship conflict emerged not simply because Alec was coming to terms with his sexual identity (although that was a factor), but because of the overall personality issues and life experiences that had shaped Darren and Alec. Because neither man is in a position to unconditionally trust the other, the dynamic of their relationship registers as a deepening of intimacy followed by a bout of separation followed by a deepening of intimacy, and it was believable to me. I did feel, though, that Alec moved into a physical relationship with Darren awfully quickly, even as I appreciated the lack of reactionary self-derision and homophobia in his character. I also appreciated the way Darren calls Alec on the fact that very early in the story he is cheating on his fiancée, and how Alec's self-awareness does not trump the happiness of people he has brought into his life and made promises to:
"Listen, I know I'm only a summer lay. That's not what this is about. It's not about me." He opened the back of his phone, slid the card into its place and snapped it closed. "Except that I like you, Alec. I don't want to see you fuck up your life, and I reckon you don't really want to fuck up hers. Why don't you tell her the truth? See what she says."
Alec swallowed, felt water and dread fill his throat, and for a moment it was as though he was drowning. Suffocating. Panic and fear flailed within him. He wanted to clutch Darren's hand to keep him safe. Or to hit him and tell him never to say such things again. A weight landed in his palm, and he closed his fingers around Darren's cheap pay-as-you-go phone. At the feel of it something cracked inside, the white membrane of his life tore and he was petrified. He wanted more than anything not to have met Darren, not to have realized what he was, to be able to climb back inside the egg and seal himself shut in it.
There is, though, as I think it clear from this passage, a certain melodrama in the narrative style, and it matches a certain level of high drama in the story itself. On the one hand, I was impressed by the solid sense of place and time the narrator captures, especially in Alec's point of view, as Alec is a very detail-oriented, fastidious man:
Ahead of him, the queue continued moving slowly away. Behind him the first horn blared. He forced his clenched fingers off the steering wheel and looked wildly to either side, as if a lay-by might have sprung out of the grass in the past few seconds. Nothing. To the left the fields were bounded by a tangled green hedge he could have reached out and touched without leaving the seat. To the right only the narrow oncoming carriageway separated him from another hedge. Tiger lilies nodded in the verges, looking exotic
and orange. The sea shimmered up ahead, and a salt-laced wind ambled over the moor. He could feel the combined irritation of every driver in the tailback building up like a head of steam under the lid of a saucepan. Cooking in their disapproval, he turned bright red, opened the door and scrambled shamefacedly out onto the road.
In fact, there is a lot of brand mentioning at the beginning of the book, and it almost put me off. I realized, eventually, that it was a reflection of Alec's personality and exclusive lifestyle, but I did not have the knowledge at the time to know how that protective shell was going to be broken through the course of the novel. I wondered, though, if some readers would be turned off by the combination of lush prose and exclusive branding in those first pages.
Generally speaking, though, some of the sentences and images are quite lovely: "The sand slid soft and insinuating between his toes," while others just felt overwrought: "He stood, gazing down, and took in a deep breath that tasted like courage." In some ways the style fits a man like Alec, who spends so much of his year stuffing down excess emotions. But sometimes it felt too treacly, making me imagine an accompanying musical score crescendo to emphasize a Very Big Event, or a Great Danger, or a Significant Revelation. Sometimes the book reminded me of those heavily melodramatic Romances of the 80s, even though the characters themselves were very contemporary. Also, because there was so much drama packed into a book of under 200 pages, the end, which was quite traditionally romantic, seemed precipitous and unbelievable to me, especially with so much care given to the emotional dynamics between the men before that. It was like unexpectedly falling off a cliff after a particularly difficult ride across rough, obstacle-strewn ground. In fact, there were a number of things that resolved themselves a bit too magically for believability in order to serve the hasty HEA. Still and all, though, I found Shining in the Sun to be an engaging, emotional book. B-