REVIEW: Life, Some Assembly Required by Kaje Harper
Dear Kaje Harper,
Life, Some Assembly Required is the sequel to The Rebuilding Year (a book I read and loved); it picks up the story directly after the end of the earlier book. I found myself a little lost at the beginning. There is little by way of recap and I had forgotten a lot of the details. I don’t think Life, Some Assembly Required works as a stand-alone. In fact, for those who read The Rebuilding Year when it first came out, I’d recommend reading a couple of detailed reviews (or a re-read) to remind yourself of what happened. Had I done this, I expect I would have sunk into the story more quickly. It took me a little while to orient myself in the story and remember who was who. I did end up digging out my own review but as it was only a paragraph, it wasn’t much help. (Perhaps my recap here will be sufficient reminder for DA readers though.)
37 year old John Barratt is the head groundskeeper at Bonaventure University in York, Wisconsin. He was married to Cynthia and had three children with her – Daniel died shorlty after being born premature; Mark and Torey followed some years later. Mark is now 15 and Torey is about to turn 13. Cynthia cheated on John with a douchebag named Brandon Carlisle and divorced John and ended up taking the children to California with her after she married Brandon. Ryan Ward is 30 and is in his first year of medical school. He had always wanted to be a doctor but when his firefighter brother David died, he ended up living his brother’s dream for a while with the San Diego Fire Department. After Ryan suffered a knee injury and severe burns to his left leg and hip in a fire, he retired from that job and finally turned his mind back to medicine. In The Rebuilding Year, over the course of a year, Ryan moves in with John (it is a strictly tenant/landlord relationship at first), they become good friends and slowly, they fall in love. While neither of them had previously identified as gay or bisexual (Ryan had a bit of a reputation with the ladies in fact), by the end of the book *spoiler alert!* they are together and happy. They have come out to John’s children and ex-wife & her jerky husband (it did not go well with the adults *at all*) and because reasons, Mark is now living with them too. As the book finished, Ryan was coming out to his dad over the phone. Life, Some Assembly Required picks up very shortly after and backtracks to detail that phone conversation.
It’s 2011 and only five US states as yet have marriage equality. It’s not all that long ago but it is important to remember that it’s not set “today”.
This is very much a domestic romance. It’s about the day to day lives of two guys who are navigating not only a new relationship but a newly discovered sexual orientation. They both (now) identify as bisexual even though they often refer to themselves as gay. Ryan’s father doesn’t react as badly as Cynthia and Brandon but he’s not overly pleased either. He urges Ryan to concentrate on his studies and not get into a serious relationship. It sounds halfway reasonable but Ryan knows that his dad wouldn’t be giving the same advice if Ryan were in a relationship with a woman instead. Ryan has two other brothers, Drew and Brent. Brent is very uncomfortable with the gay and about to marry a woman whose folks hail from a particularly bigoted part of Texas. Drew is accepting and just glad his brother is happy.
John is patient and kind and a bit unreal (in the too perfect sense) at times. He thinks the best of people and he rarely reacts in anger. He’s not a yeller, but when he reaches his limit, he makes his thoughts plain, no matter how softly spoken it may be uttered.
“Hah, you ‘won’t let Ryan’,” Brent said. “You’ll even ‘tell him’. Right. He’s more stubborn than a rhinoceros. I bet I know who wears the pants in your house, and it wouldn’t be you.”
Ryan took a breath to blast that “pants” comment and coughed it out as John pinched him hard , his hand hidden between their knees.
John said, “You might have a mistaken idea here. There are two men in this relationship. We both wear pants. And sometimes take them off each other.”
During the course of the book, John and Ryan navigate Ryan’s family’s reaction – which slowly improves – and the drama of a heavily pregnant Cynthia turning up on their doorstep unexpectedly with Torey. Cynthia and Brandon are getting a divorce and there is a health issue with their baby – such that Brandon does not want to be a father to the child. Ryan, understandably, suffers quite a few pangs. Their relationship is fairly new, it is clear that Cynthia is vulnerable and John is a natural caretaker. He wants his children close and Ryan thinks John might consider his life would be easier if he and Cynthia reconciled.
Sometimes, Ryan wanted John to have a stronger reaction earlier. Sometimes I did too. But John is careful and he thinks of his children and their well being above his own. He does prioritise his relationship with Ryan but he takes a softly softly approach with Cynthia for the benefit of the children and this was sometimes difficult for Ryan (and me as reader) to accept. John isn’t a doormat but there are times when he gives a good impression of one and Cynthia, in particular, is good at exploiting his easygoing nature.
There is also the give and take and compromise of everyday life. It doesn’t necessarily sound exciting but, once I’d oriented myself, it was engrossing nonetheless. The main characters are so darn nice and they are doing their best in some difficult situations. Ryan has to make decisions about his summer externships; the best ones for his career would involve living away from John and the children for 3 months every year. I thought the way this was handled in the book was authentic and made sense.
Unlike the first book, there is no murder investigation to help carry the story. It’s focused very much on how these guys are living their everyday lives and the challenges of a blended family and coming out. Because it is set in 2011 (something I had to remind myself of every now and then), acceptance of queerness wasn’t as great as it is even today (and I know it’s not perfect now but I think we can agree that it’s better than it was even four years ago). Coming out, being out, these are issues that Ryan and John struggle with as the story progresses. Modeling behaviours to the children becomes even more important later in the story.
I’ve complained before about how in m/m romance there is often a “checklist” of sexual activities that the main characters seem to need to do before they get their HEA. One of the things Ryan and John “deal with” in Life, Some Assembly Required is Ryan bottoming. Unlike in the books where both guys switching being the receptive partner is some kind of “gold standard”, the matter here gets some serious treatment. It is something Ryan wants to do but it takes him time to work up to it. It is something he’s unsure about. It is not something John requires or even requests. Ryan is nervous but wants to have the experience. Neither man had engaged in receptive anal sex before beginning their relationship so it made sense to me that it would be something Ryan would want to explore. (Although, it could have made equal sense that he wasn’t interested because sometimes people know they won’t like/aren’t interested in something without having to try it first.) However, the way it was done here, how it was “resolved”, it all made sense in the story. It wasn’t something merely to “tick a box”. It wasn’t casual and I did think it said something about the progression of their relationship.
Life, Some Assembly Required has a lovely rhythm to it. It’s written in an easy style to read and is not overly preachy. It doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of life, for all that it deals almost exclusively with domestic matters which are not inherently romance-novel-exciting. I don’t know, but I suspect (hope) there might be another story for these guys in the future. Even though it was quite low-key, with an indistinct story arc, I was thoroughly entertained and I’d happily spend more time with John and Ryan.
I love Kaje Harper’s stories. Her characters are so solid, and their pain is real, and she NEVER gives them easy answers. So, so satisfying.
@Wahoo Suze: Yes, she’s one of my favourite queer romance authors too. I really love her Life Lessons series and I’ve heard great things about her shifter series (which are currently languishing on the TBR of Doom).