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REVIEW: Muscling Through by J.L. Merrow

Dear Ms. Merrow.

I only read this story because your name was on it. I had a truly horrendous experience once reading a story with a not-smart protagonist (it was a BDSM story and the relationship ended up as true abuse and was awful. I was depressed for days that anyone would consider that “love”), but I figured if anyone could pull it off, it would be you. I trust your voice. I trust you as an author. And I was right: you were brilliant. As always.

MusclingThrough JL MorrowAl is huge and ugly and really not at all smart. And he really isn’t. It’s not that everyone thinks he’s stupid but he’s really secretly smart. He’s really stupid. He meets Larry in a dark alley one night. Al’s pissing away his beer, finishes up, walks toward Larry, and Larry thinks Al’s going to mug or rape him. But Al is oblivious and “helps” Larry home because he thinks Larry’s a bit drunk. Larry comes to Al’s work the next day to apologize and they hit it off. Larry is an Art History professor at Cambridge. Al works on the river, hauling in the punts rented to tourists and students.

The story is told from Al’s first person perspective, complete with lower class grammar and accent. There’s very little narrative tension: Larry and Al get together immediately, move in together pretty quickly. There’s a chapter in the middle where Larry thinks Al’s cheating on him, but it’s dealt with pretty quickly. The story then follows them through their quite uneventful life, their engagement and civil union ceremony.

If there’s tension, it’s in figuring out what keeps Larry and Al together. What does Larry, a college professor, see in Al, a manual laborer, to keep them together, and will it last? The whole book, therefore, is based on a sort of schadenfreude. Not quite the shameful pleasure in the misfortune of others, but an embarrassing understanding of our own assumptions about whether a man like Al could truly be loved by a man like Larry. There’s a lovely scene where Larry’s sister is helping them back together after Larry thinks he sees Al cheating on him. Al had overheard Alicia talking with Larry in a previous scene and thinks Alicia believes that he’s taking advantage of Larry:

We got in Alicia’s car. It was a Volkswagen Golf. I fitted in easy, once I’d put the seat back a bit. It took a while to get out of Cambridge, ’cause of the one-way system, and then we went down towards Trumpington.

“Don’t talk much, do you?” Alicia said.

“Nah. I leave that to Larry. He’s better at it than I am.”

She just smiled then and didn’t say nothing. I got thinking again. I wasn’t sure what she wanted to happen, ’cause she was being nice, but I knew she didn’t like me. “You don’t like me, do you?” I said.

“What? Excuse me, but here I am, driving you up to my parents’ to meet him. You think I’d do this for someone I didn’t like?”

That confused me. “I thought you wanted us to split up. You said I was taking advantage of Larry.” I forgot she didn’t know I’d heard her when she was talking to Larry in our kitchen.

“What? Wait a minute.” She didn’t say nothing for a bit while she went round a roundabout. “I think you’ve misunderstood me.”

I nodded, ’cause I do that all the time with people.

“I admit, I didn’t think it was a good idea at first, you and Lawrence. But… Look, I think you make him happy. And he’s certainly not happy now. And I don’t think you are either.”

I frowned, ’cause did that mean she thought we’d split up? And if we had, how come I didn’t know? Then I thought, I better wait until I see Larry. He’s good at explaining stuff. And he’d definitely know if we’d split up

Of course, Alicia had been yelling at Larry about taking advantage of Al’s stupidity, not the other way around. And we can see that as readers even if Al will never really understand it. Or even need to understand it.

This does bring up the fact that Larry is a bit of a prick at times. He really does love Al, but he also uses him for shock value:

Larry was in a good mood when we left. “God, did you see their faces? The entire evening? Especially Hardwicke. I don’t think he’s been so shocked since the college started admitting women!”

“Yeah, I’ve had other blokes who went out with me so they could shock their mates or their folks,” I said, ’cause it was true.

Larry stopped dead in the street, and I wondered if he’d had too much of that port to drink. And then I thought, nah, no way, the glasses were so tiny you’d need about a hundred to get pissed. Though he is kind of little and he gets pissed easy. “Al,” he said, “you know that’s not why I’m with you, don’t you?”

“I don’t know why you’re with me,” I said, ’cause I didn’t.

He looked hurt. “Why are you with me?”

That was easy. “Because you’re pretty and you’re clever and you know about paintings and you like Charlie Chaplin.”

Larry gave me a big smile. He grabbed my arm and we carried on walking. “Well, then. I’m with you because you’re gorgeous and kind and we have the same taste in comedy.”

“Okay.” I was pleased. Usually people can’t think of more than one reason why they’re with me. I know he didn’t mean it about me being gorgeous, ’cause I got a face like a squashed potato, and I know he likes cleverer stuff than Charlie Chaplin, but it was sweet of him to say it.

But in the end I believed in these two. I believed in the inherent goodness of Al and in Larry’s need for that in his life. I believed that they loved each other and they’d stay together, despite their differences.

The one thing that was fascinating to me was that the sex — and there was a lot of it — was not, in fact, hot. As everything was told from Al’s point of view, it was told in his very no nonsense voice. And as a result, just wasn’t sexy to me. I don’t know what DOES make a sex scene hot, but one told in Al’s voice isn’t it:

Larry always looks so little, folded up beneath me. It makes me kind of scared I’m going to hurt him. I pushed in really slow and gentle, so he could stop me if he needed to. “Yes, yes—don’t stop!” he said, and I thought it was probably okay. He was still hard, so I guess it couldn’t have hurt that much.

When I was all the way in, I stopped for a minute, just so I could feel him around me. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. But then Larry said, “Move! Now, for God’s sake!” so I started thrusting in and out of him, and when I do that, I always get carried away, going faster even if I don’t mean to, and soon I was slamming into him like my dick was a fist and Larry was a punch bag. “Yes! God, just like—yes!”

Larry’s face was all pink, and his hair was dark with sweat. He looked beautiful. I told him to wank himself off, and when his hand wrapped round his dick, it felt like it was around mine too, and I couldn’t help, I started coming ’cause it was all so fucking amazing. And then Larry went “Oh God!” and he was coming too, shooting his load up between us.

I just kept looking at his face, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Sweet maybe, but not sexy.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed the book. I loved, as I always do, the utter Englishness of your voice. I loved your characters, even when Larry was being a prick. And I thought it was a really sweet love story that asked some deep questions without seeming to do so.

Grade: B

Best regards,

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.


  1. Joanna Chambers (Tumperkin)
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 17:01:01

    I loved this book too. Got to disagree with this though:

    It’s not that everyone thinks he’s stupid but he’s really secretly smart. He’s really stupid.

    I didn’t think Al was stupid – although he is slow to pick up on stuff. I thought Merrow asked some pretty interesting questions about what education is, and what wisdom (for want of a better word) is. She shows Al being surprisingly acute at times – though it often appears accidental – and he has an intuition about art that Larry, whose field is art history, doesn’t have. I actually found the line Merrow walked with Al’s character quite tricky (is he slow? or not?) but ultimately I just really loved the story and the characters.

    I also disagree Larry was a prick. I thought he was lovely!

  2. Tripoli
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 17:36:19

    I also loved this book, and I love this author for taking chances and writing about unconventional characters — such a breath of fresh air. It was nice to read a book that wasn’t all about the sex but was about the characters!Her secondary characters are always alot of fun.

  3. Becky
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 17:51:33

    Larry had his jerkish moments, but he also appreciated Al in a way that no one else seemed to. I loved when he’d get upset about insults that we recognized as readers, but that flew right past Al. (Also, I hated how often people in his life, and even random strangers, felt free to belittle Al. But I suspect it’s a more common problem for people like Al than it should be.)

    And the bit with the flower girl at the end, even though it was only a couple of lines, was too adorable.

  4. Christine M.
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 18:49:01

    I actually think that, overall, 1st person POV sex scenes can’t be all that hot because, well, the guy (or girl) is in the middle of having sex and they should be more busy having sex than telling us what’s happening in the greatest details. We get what’s in their mind (which I tend to love), and we just have to embellish the rest a little. :)

    @Joanna Chambers (Tumperkin): The way you describe Al makes me want to analyse him and Larry in terms of D&D ability scores!

  5. Mandi
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 19:10:53

    Al is slow to pick up some things that others get right away – is that stupid? I don’t know. He had moments of insight though. I would say he is more slow.

    I LOVE this author’s voice. I picked up Pricks and Pragmatism on a whim awhile ago and have been loving her stuff ever since.

  6. Castiron
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 00:08:11

    @Christine M.: I had the same thought — I’ve often used “intelligence 18; wisdom 3” to describe an acquaintance who’s extremely brilliant and has less common sense than a baby ferret on speed; Al sounds like he’d be the opposite.

  7. Christine M.
    Aug 19, 2011 @ 05:34:21

    @Castiron: YES! That’s exactly it! This is actually help full to determine these kind of things for a character IMO, that way you always know how they’ll react and you can quickly figure out if you’ve created a monster mary/gary-stue (they’re level 5 and their modifiers are all at least +4? I don’t think so). ^^

  8. etv13
    Aug 20, 2011 @ 04:21:20

    I enjoyed this a lot, but there were a couple of places where I wondered if Alan wasn’t having us on. The bit with the cutlery, for example. I had the sense there that maybe he was a perfectly intelligent, lower-class guy with an extremely dry wit and no compunctions about exercising it on me. On balance, after reading the whole book, I think that’s not the best reading (i.e. I think Al is sincere and not just playing a joke on the reader), but it’s still a possible one.

    First person narrative is a tricky thing, especially when you’re out to portray an unintelligent character. Here, for example, if Al is so stupid, how does it happen that he’s such a competent narrator? Have you ever tried to tell a true story of any length in an orderly and interesting way? It’s not all that easy. If Al makes it look easy, what does that tell us about his intelligence? Convention and characterization bump up against each other, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which one is the boss.

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