Dear Ms. Mitchell.
I’ve never actually managed to finish this book before. I’ve had it ever since I discovered your writing, but never managed to get through it, despite numerous friends for whom it is their favorite of your books. I always thought it was because it’s about a high school shooting and my partner is a high school teacher. But as I forced myself through the book this time, I realized that’s not it. It’s because it’s a story about a relationship destroying itself, rather than building itself. And it’s therefore a very tough read.
Don’t get me wrong, you take some amazing risks with this book and write an amazing story with, as always, incredibly real characters. But because it’s a breaking-up story rather than a getting-together story, like most romances, I didn’t actually like the characters very much, because they weren’t being very likable.
Sean is a high school science teacher. Kyle is an architect. They’ve been together for six years and everything’s perfect. They adore each other, the sex is super-hot, and they have nothing to worry about. Then there’s a shooting at Sean’s high school in which two kids and the principal die. Sean is shot twice in the leg and is lauded as a hero because he’s the one to take down the shooter. He insists on being out and proud when the publicity hits, so he’s lauded as Sean Farnham, Gay Hero. With a bad case of survivor’s guilt for not saving everyone, he feels he needs to use his time in the spotlight to preach for tolerance and safety (still and particularly pertinent now with the bullying of gay teens and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project started as response).
Kyle doesn’t like this, because he tends to do worst-case-scenario thinking and sees Sean as putting himself in harm’s way again. He’s also jealous of Sean’s publicist, Brandt. He just wants everything to go back to the way it was before the shooting, which kinda makes him sound like a prick, which he acknowledges. But Sean doesn’t like Kyle taking care of him at all, so he’s kind of a prick about Kyle needing to shuttle him to and from PT appointments. He won’t let Kyle massage his leg to make it feel better and snaps at Kyle when he offers to get him anything. And he doesn’t ask Kyle’s input how much and what publicity to do after the shooting. So they’re both kind of being pricks. Which was kind of a problem for me as a reader, although I completely understand that that’s the way the book needed to be for it to be the book it is, if that makes any sense.
The sex is hot, but instead of it building the relationship, as it does in traditional romances, it’s the only thing that they’ve got going for them. While the conflicts between them are NOT easily resolvable by sitting down and talking, because Sean’s priorities have changed for a while, I still just wanted to slap them out of their stupidity and ask them WTF they thought they were doing. They seem to fix things, but then they break again, all the way, before they get back together again.
So this is a very difficult book to read. The characters, rather than becoming better people because they’re falling in love, are already in love and become worse people as it all falls apart. Your genius is in making me still root for them, despite understanding why they were falling apart. Additionally, the angst to groveling ratio is, for me, unbalanced at the end of the book. I didn’t feel that there was enough resolution at the end for the rather massive problems they were having. But I’m a slut for groveling, so that might be me.
I forced myself to read this book because it’s sort of a prequel for your December Samhain release. I’ve been assured they’re both utterly stand-alone, but I wanted to be sure I was caught up. But Not Knowing Jack is also an established relationship story, so it’ll be interesting to see how I like that one, considering not only how much I usually adore your books but also how difficult this one was for me.
I have a hard time putting a grade on this book. It’s not like your Chasing Smoke, which I just thought was badly constructed. This book has your trademark brilliant characters, tight plotting, hot hot sex, lovely imagery, all of that. But it wasn’t about the pains and joys of falling in love, it was about the pain of staying in love. And as much as I appreciated what you were doing and as much as I believe those stories need to be told, and as much as I thought the book was technically brilliant, I thought Sean and Kyle were assholes, adorable as they were and as much as I wanted them to stay together. On the one hand, I want to give this book a high B for being so brilliantly done in a technical sense, but on the other, I really had to force myself to read it all the way through and I don’t EVER see myself reading it again. So…
Grade: B- (but recommended, if that makes any sense)