REVIEW: Not Knowing Jack by K.A. Mitchell
This was not the book I was expecting. At all. Which doesn’t make it bad, at all. It just…threw me a curve ball pretty early on (not that I have any idea what that metaphor actually means) and just kept them coming. That said, I adored it. I adored Tony. I adored Jack and his angst. It’s almost like you wrote this book for me, because it hits ALL my academic as well as my readerly buttons.
We met Tony Gemetti and Jack Noble in Regularly Scheduled Life, but readers absolutely do NOT need to read that book in order to read this one. Sean and Kyle show up for a few scenes, but they’re by no means integral to the story. Tony and Jack have a…thing. They live together in Jack’s house, they have lots and LOTS of hot sex. But, overall, there’s no commitment between them, no conversations about their relationship, and only sex-produced “Love you”s every now and then. Or at least, this is what Tony realizes when Jack starts acting weird.
First of all, I have to say, the names bugged the CRAP outta me. Look at that cover. Who is Tony? Who is Jack? Tony is dark, Italian, rich, and intense while Jack is blond, tattoed, working class, and irreverent, right? No. TONY is the blond Italian (?!), tattooed, working class, and irreverent. JACK is dark, rich, and intense, and not Italian. I usually have a hard time picturing blond heroes, but I loved this picture so much and adored Tony so much, that he’s firmly fixed in my head. But he’s not a “Tony,” for heaven’s sake. And, for me, Jack is so not the name of the chef of a 5-star restaurant who drives a BMW. Jack is very much a working class name for me and I *know* that’s my own problem. But still, every single scene of this book, and usually during the scene, I had to try to figure out who was who. I’m sure this is a personal problem (maybe a holdover from growing up in working class Italian neighborhood in New Jersey), but it was a huge one for me. ::deep breath::
That aside, Tony and Jack start out the book in a not-relationship but Tony gets more and more weirded out, the less and less Jack seems to be telling him about what’s going on. And what we discover is that Jack does indeed have another life, or at least, he did. In fact, he has kids that he’s not seen in a while. And a Traumatic Event that effected all three of them that sort of explains everything. And suddenly Jack throws Tony out — twice — but then they go and get the kids and are Insta-Family. And have to deal with Traumatic Event and Emo-Teen and their own foundering — or, indeed, floundering — relationship. So, it’s absolutely NOT the book I was expecting. But wow, it’s powerful anyway and so well-written.
This is an abrupt book. Things happen abruptly. Tony and Jack deal with things abruptly, then stop talking about it (or never really start). The narration between events, the slow passage of time, is non-existent. Suddenly it’s a week later, two, a month. There’s exposition, sure, but it’s abrupt. This is not a criticism at all, just something for readers to be aware of. It’s different from your normal voice. But it fits the characters and the plot brilliantly. Life IS changing abruptly for these men. Their emotions are going haywire and they don’t have time to find their center, either individually or as a couple. And neither of them is used to dealing with their emotions in any way that isn’t related to sex.
For example, they’ve just had sex and talked-but-not-really about going raw:
After Jack wiped the come off the sink and mirror and counter, he picked up the condom wrapper. "Did you mean it? About next time?"
Jack flicked the wrapper into the trash. "I don't know of a reason why we couldn't."
Jack flipped off the lights, and Tony followed him into the bedroom. For them, it was a pretty deep discussion. When Jack turned off the lights in the bedroom and tucked himself in behind Tony, it seemed like the discussion was over.
But — no surprise here — the sex is hot. And, as always, you write sex scenes that are not only smoking, but that mean something, every time. They build up or break down the relationship, they’re different enough not to get boring, and they always have a purpose. (Aside: I know you tweeted about watching the videos, but is it REALLY possible to give a guy a blowjob while fucking his ass? Really? I think I’ll need to see the video myself before I believe you. ::coff coff::)
Niggles and picks: Tony has angsty background that doesn’t get much stage time. And maybe that’s just Tony. He seems pretty matter-of-fact about his life and who he is and WHY he is. But the lack of stage time means that he doesn’t actually have much of an emotional arc. Well, actually, that’s not true: his emotional arc is that he grows up and accepts responsibility, commits to a relationship, and becomes a parent, which is a Real Life emotional arc but not necessarily one we’re used to in RomanceLandia.
Things get a little glossed at the end. Trauma happens again and suddenly things are Fixed between Jack and his Emo-Teen son? I *can* see why it might work that way, but this might be the spot where abrupt is too abrupt.
The ex-wife is a bit much to take. She’s unrelieved by any explanation of why she is the way she is. And the explanation might not necessarily fit Tony and Jack’s story, but having another crazy Barbie Doll ex-wife running around in a romance is a bit too cliche for me.
All this aside, I loved the book. I loved the character construction, as always, and despite being unexpected, the story was VERY well done. There’s two things I especially adored.
One: Tony and Jack don’t actually have the same sense of humor. I think this is fascinating because usually we know characters are destined for Twu Wuv because they’re the only ones who understand the other. But Jack just doesn’t GET Tony’s sense of humor. And yet you make it work. It’s Tony’s sense of humor, his ease with himself, that gets through to Jack’s kids. And while Jack might not understand Tony all the time, he craves the man Tony is, his life, and comfort, and passion. And he uses his understanding of his own craving for Tony to get Tony back at the end. And I love that.
Two: oh sweet baby Jesus, this book is all about the construction of masculinity. And that’s my Thing, my academic obsession, the concept around which I’ve basically built my entire career. So, really, I just adore it inside and out. Tony has to figure out how to be a grown-up man and Jack has to figure out what being a good man actually means and he struggles so. This is why I can deal with Tony’s less obvious emotional arc, because I just lapped up Jack’s angst over figuring out that he IS already a good man:
Exactly how long was he going to be able to hang on when this new life had become as much of a fake as the old one? Tony was here because he thought he had to be. No matter how much work Jack put into anything, nothing could stop it from going to shit. Tony's determination to help him through this would last about as long as it took to hear the truth from Brandon and Sarah or worse, see it printed in their faces. Jack was a failure. As a father. As a partner. As a man.
Om nom nom.
Oh, and the ending? Pure schmoopy happiness. Guilt and groveling and full-blown commitment-fever. Thank you!