Dear Ms. Aedin,
Sunita: I wasn’t familiar with your work when I read the synopsis and excerpt of this book, but it grabbed my attention immediately. How does a man deal with a tragic event that not only robs him of his partner, but turns him into a spokesman for the gay community? How does he move on when his public role, which he considers important to fulfill, keeps the tragedy at the forefront of his daily life? Given this setup, I expected an angst-filled ride, but there is much more than that. Paper Planes is by turns sad, funny, and surprising.
Sarah: I was interested in how this story would compare with K.A. Mitchell’s Regularly Scheduled Life, which has a similar plot about a victim of a tragedy becoming a spokesman for the gay community. So Sunita and I had similar interests. But I also really loved the teaser excerpt.
Sunita: The book opens with a bang: On his way to yet another speaking engagement, Stuart Grange recalls his last telephone call with his longtime partner, Brennan. Brennan’s role in foiling a terrorist attack made Brennan a hero and Stuart his posthumous spokesman. When he misses his flight home he is helped out by Dustin McDonough, the Korean-American airline pilot with whom he had exchanged a few words on his inbound flight. There is clearly an attraction there, but neither acts on it (they play a vintage videogame instead) and Stuart goes home to North Carolina the next day. But he keeps thinking about Dustin, and when he is offered the chance to photograph a national LGBT rally in Washington, DC, he accepts it, hoping for the one-in-a-million possibility that Dustin will be there. And he is, although they don’t actually meet face to face. Stuart and Dustin then begin an email relationship that turns into a long-distance romance, and the rest of the book charts the development of this romance as well as Stuart’s journey from grieving LGBT symbol to a new life.
The novel is structured differently from your average romance, which presents both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the slow pace of Stuart and Dustin’s relationship results in a more convincing arc than the meet-&-fall-into-bed speed of many stories. By the time Stuart and Dustin get together, Stuart has taken a number of steps to change his life and leave the past behind.
On the negative side, readers who like the main couple to get together fairly early may become impatient. After their initial meeting, months (and chapters) pass before the protagonists are together again. And then, given the long-distance nature of the relationship, they spend considerable time apart. The book is written in the first person POV of Stuart, so we spend a lot of time in his world. I liked that aspect, but it does reduce the romance focus.
The emphasis on Stuart’s development reflects the care and skill with which you depict your characters. Dustin, despite his name, is ethnically Korean-American, which leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the book:
“So,” I said, turning the attention away from my background, which usually earned me either good-natured ribbing or negative assumptions about my intelligence, education, and/or lineage. “You’re from Korea?”
“Well, no. I’m from San Diego. My mom was from Korea, though. My dad was U.S. Air Force, stationed over there in the fifties.”
I was trying to figure out how to ask why his mother hadn’t named him something more Korean sounding than “Dustin” without living up to the “ignorant Southern racist” stereotype that I was pretty sure I still fit purely by accident sometimes, when he grinned and solved my dilemma for me.
“You want to ask about my name, don’t you?” he prodded.
He laughed. “Don’t worry about it. Those are the two things everyone always asks about—my name and my leg.”
Dustin has a prosthetic leg, the ramifications of which you also depict with sensitivity and insight. Stuart’s initial reaction is amusing and one with which the reader can identify, and the way it factors into their intimate relationship felt authentic. It’s something that is ever-present but does not comprise the sum total of who Dustin is. There are so few books in which these topics are handled well that Paper Planes really stands out for me as an exemplar of how to do it right. I also very much appreciated that Dustin and Stuart are both grownups, and Dustin is well into his forties. Thanks for recognizing that people in that age category can make sexy, interesting heroes!
The leisurely pace of the book occasionally made me impatient, but the high quality of the writing carried me through, and overall I found this to be a satisfying read. I will definitely be on the lookout for the other books you are writing in this world.
Sarah: I would agree with most of what Sunita says here. I very much enjoyed the slow build to the relationship, I liked both characters, I loved how you dealt with Dustin’s ethnicity, disability, and career. The emotional arc for both characters was wonderful, too.
What I didn’t like was the strange suspense aspects that seemed tacked on to the story. Stuart’s PowerPoint presentation for his advocacy speech is sabotaged, but it has very little effect on the story and is never discussed or explained. And the fact that it takes the FBI a full year and a half to figure out who was responsible for the hijacking that killed Stuart’s partner is utterly unbelievable to me, especially considering the result. Maybe I just have more faith in our law enforcement than you do, but still, it seemed odd and strangely out of place in the story. Those two points dragged the narrative down for me from a solid B.
-Sunita and Sarah