REVIEW: The Best Laid Plans by Lauren Gallagher
It’s a foolproof strategy…until the emotional balance shifts.
After yet another adoption falls through, Gabe is ready to give up, and Shahid isn’t far behind him. Apparently, being a gay couple—half of which is Muslim—is just one strike too many for the powers that be.
When their friend Kendra offers to carry their baby for them, both men balk at first, but gradually warm to the idea. Especially Gabe, whose bisexuality is open to the chemistry among the three of them.
The plan seems simple. Kendra and Gabe, foregoing the cold, impersonal IVF clinic, paperwork and red tape, will conceive the old-fashioned way. They’ll all share parenting responsibilities, and live happily baby after.
But as the heat flares between Gabe and Kendra, Shahid’s long-suppressed insecurities bubble to the surface. Then some unexpected news catches the trio off guard and derails their plans—and now one heart could be left out in the cold.
Dear Lauren Gallagher,
First off, I should say I really enjoyed the book. Even though some things felt implausible to me and stretched my credulity beyond breaking point, at all times, I still enjoyed it. I liked the way you subverted some of the common tropes in books dealing with these topics and the sex between all three of the protagonists (yes, I said all three*) was super hot.
Nevertheless, even as I was devouring the book, at various points, I was asking myself how likely this set-up would be in real life, questioning myself on how much responsibility (if any) a fictional story has to be true to real life people, particularly marginalised people, and thinking that if maybe there were fewer elements thrown in, maybe I’d have been more able to accept the story.
If an author writes about our contemporary world as she would like it to be, rather than how it is (I don’t know that you did, I’m just speculating, possibly wildly), is that okay? What if that erases the lived experience of actual people? Does it make a difference that the author is white? (Would it be more acceptable, for example, if the author was a member of the non-WASP community, in this case a Muslim?) I asked a lot of questions in a part of my brain as I was reading and thinking about the book after I finished. I’m not sure I have any answers. I think, for the purposes of this review I don’t have to know them. I’m just going to lay some of those questions out and readers can make up their own minds and decide whether they might enjoy the book.
(I should also probably add a blanket apology here for any unintended insensitivity or ignorance I may display here. Please feel free to educate me in the comments. It is not my intention to be offensive or exclusive.)
I don’t know how common it is for gay Muslim men to be accepted by their family and their mosque. While my knowledge about Islam is pretty limited, it seems to me that homosexuality is not widely accepted in Islam or contemporary Muslim culture. I know it’s a crime in Saudi Arabia (though Saudi Arabia is not known for it’s progressive views on anything of course). I know there are Christian churches in the USA (where the book is set) that welcome queer people into their community and celebrate same sex marriage. I know there are also a lot of Christian churches in the USA which do not. I don’t know if it’s the same kind of thing for Muslims. I’m not sure if an imam in a USA mosque is likely to perform a marriage ceremony between two men, particularly when one of the grooms is not also Muslim.
I don’t know how common it is that a devout Muslim man would be married to a Catholic man and how they could make that marriage work as successfully as Gabe and Shahid clearly do. I know mixed religion marriage happens (see here for example) but is it commonplace? I’m not sure.
The story goes that Shahid and Gabe met in a Comparative Religions course at college. Shahid was the only Muslim man in the class and Gabe approached him and asked him for a coffee so he could ask questions about Islam. I’m sure that happens in real life, but in terms of a trope in a romance novel, it can be problematic from the point of view that no one person can speak to an entire religion and it could be seen that here, Shahid was cast in that role. That wasn’t my impression as I read the book however, but I mention it because I know I miss things sometimes and perhaps other readers will feel differently.
Because Islam brought Shahid and Gabe together, both Shahid’s family and his imam, over time, accepted their relationship as “meant to be”. Throughout the book in fact, where there was a dynamic of a family being not accepting of them, it was Gabe’s Catholic family who was the problem. Every time an issue came up which was or could be a stumbling block to Shahid’s family, they ended up accepting it, with relatively little angst so far as I can tell, as the will of Allah.
Shahid is devout. Gabe made him a prayer room in their house and he does his salat (prayers) there. He went, the year before, on the hajj to Mecca with his grandfather. He keeps Ramadan. More than that, he thinks and acts in terms of his faith all the time. His faith is stronger than Gabe’s. Gabe goes to Mass at Christmas and Easter and he gives up something for Lent (I’ll be honest, I know only slightly more about Catholicism than Islam. I had thought that participating in Lent was a sign of a more deep religious affiliation but Gabe doesn’t think of his faith in anywhere near the same terms as Shahid. It is essential for Shahid. My impression was that it was more cultural for Gabe – and this may be part of the reason that Gabe and Shahid can make their interfaith marriage work as well as they do). When an imminent adoption breaks down because the birth mother is uncomfortable with Shahid’s religion, he is able to cope better and more quickly because of his faith. Gabe is kind of out there on his own (in religious terms only; he and Shahid are very close.)
Part of me read the book with curiosity, observing with a kind of fascination how this couple from diverse religious backgrounds made a marriage work. I think it’s hard to do and they do it well. They had been married for nine years by the start of the book and their relationship is very stable. They had worked out what marriage looked like for them and that included navigating their religious differences. Both treated the other’s religion with respect and I’m sure that helped.
For what it’s worth (as I am, and I’m likely to demonstrate here, clearly not an expert), I think you were respectful of Shahid’s faith and religious observance. It was not fetishised and certainly not demonised. It just was. My impression was that you had some personal experience with Islam or that you had done some good research. That said, I’m still a little dubious that Shahid’s family and his imam would have been so accepting. I guess that still seems perhaps plausible but very unlikely to me. (I’d be very happy to be wrong on that by the way.)
And then there’s Kendra. She is a teacher at the same high school where Gabe works, also as a teacher. They are good friends and he and Shahid had helped Kendra through her divorce from a cheating POS a few years before. Kendra is heartbroken for her friends that they have again been turned down by a birth mother for adoption. Both Shahid and Gabe desperately want to be parents. In her mid 30s, Kendra is ambivalent about motherhood for herself, but after giving the matter some thought, she offers to carry a baby for her friends. The plan would be that Gabe and Shahid would be the legal parents of the child but there would be some kind of visitation/access agreement worked out so that Kendra could stay in the child’s life. It is not really intended that Kendra would be a co-parent.
Both Gabe and Shahid know that their families would frown at IVF. For themselves, they are reluctant to ask a woman to go through the rigors and traumas of IVF. Add to that, it’s expensive. Given how progressive Shahid’s family apparently were, I was a bit surprised at their reported concerns about IVF to be honest. Why was this their line in the sand? That wasn’t clear to me. It happens that I know plenty of people who have been through the IVF process (I am one of them) and frankly, I bought Gabe’s and Shahid’s reservations more than what they thought their parents’ reservations would be. Even so, that didn’t automatically mean that Kendra had to be physically intimate with one or both of the guys. There are other options short of IVF which are far less expensive and invasive. But the story was about the complications which arise when physical intimacy with Kendra is added into the mix, so of course that’s where it had to go.
Kendra is attracted to both men and Gabe has always thought Kendra was hot. Gabe is bi but has been happily faithful to Shahid for the 11 years of their relationship. Shahid identifies as gay but it turns out he has a little bi in him – but only a little. And actually, this was kind of lovely. I liked the exploration of the sexual identities of both men and I loved the dynamic between the three. Plus, the sex, all of it, was scorching hot, creative and well written.
I did spend a couple of nervous moments at one point in the book, dreading a thing I detest and which would have made the book a wallbanger, notwithstanding the enjoyment which had gone before. I was so pleased you didn’t go there.
There are other things I could talk about but I think they verge too far into spoiler territory for me to go into.
I liked the ending and was happy with it. However, my credulity was again stretched by the apparent (relatively) easy acceptance of it by the families. My concern with the story is that there are just so many things that Shahid’s and Gabe’s families (and Kendra’s come to think of it) have to accept. It’s not one thing, it’s not even two. It’s loads of things and each thing is hard. Taken individually, one might be plausible but by adding them together, the plausibility factor decreased exponentially. Because I am contrary, I can also say that even so, I appreciated the effort at inclusion you made.
I said above that I thought you were respectful of Islam within the confines of the book but I wonder if there aren’t some (perhaps even many?) actual Muslims who would take a different view? It’s not my bailiwick so I can’t really answer but it may be that notwithstanding the technical accuracy of things such as the salat and the fountain for wudu (ceremonial washing before salat), portraying an imam as being as progressive as Shahid’s is, could be seen as disrespectful.
I give you credit for not telling a story only about white people with Christian or no religious faith. It can sometimes be difficult to fit things into the confines of the genre romance where a HEA is king. Whether other readers will think that Shahid, Gabe and Kendra are shoe-horned into their HEA by a more fantastical view of real life, I cannot say. Whether, if that is what other readers think, they will be prepared to accept it, is another question.
For myself, I did feel that the characters and story were manipulated to get a HEA and I found it unlikely that such would occur in real life. One thing maybe, but not all the things. I hope it’s not racist/phobic to express that. I did a little research (not a lot, I admit) and what I can find indicates that all of these things being accepted and working out well seems pretty unlikely in real life. But perhaps I am selling Islam (and Catholicism for that matter) short. That said, I am a romance reader first and foremost and I am (in certain circumstances at least), prepared to accept the occasional sacrifice of authenticity for the end result of HEA.
I feel like I learned things in the book; about Islam and about navigating an interfaith marriage so I was clearly prepared to accept it as portraying a certain level of authenticity. I think you were respectful in so far as genre confines allowed. I credit you with more than merely good intentions here.
And, I enjoyed the book. I had fun reading it. I was entertained and I cared about the characters. I felt for them and wanted them to be happy. Ultimately, my grade reflects those factors and not much of the other things I have banged on about above. Partly this is because I couldn’t quite figure how to factor them into my rating (what weighting should those things get?) and partly because I tend to grade on enjoyment anyway.
I hope I have set out the issues which may trip other readers up so that they can make an informed decision of whether they may enjoy the book. For me, it’s a B.