REVIEW: And Call Me in the Morning by Willa Okati
Dear Willa Okati,
I requested the sequel to this book, And Call Me in the Evening, for review (which will be posted soon) but when I started it, I remembered too little about the first book so decided to read this one again. And Call Me in the Morning was among the first m/m romance books I read, recommended by a friend after a discussion about the Gay for You trope. I guess revisiting it is kind of timely after the recent m/m roundtable where this trope was one of the subjects of discussion. When I first started reading m/m was basically clueless and had no idea Gay for You was regarded as problematic. As I understand it, it does sometimes happen in real life, so I think it’s not so much that the trope itself is ‘bad’ but more, that it is so prevalent in the genre and can give an unwary reader a false idea of gay experience. Nevertheless, I don’t read a lot of Gay for You these days because there is something about it, at least in volume, which has a subtle suggestion that Gay for You = a more “socially acceptable” way to be gay. By that, I mean, it could be twisted to mean, he’s not really gay because apart from that one guy, he’s totally straight and that’s not so bad right? That’s not what I think by the way but I think the trope in such numbers does some erasing of people who are not gay for anyone but are gay just because they are gay.
No matter how I twist my brain however, this book is definitely Gay for You, there’s just no denying it. So my conscience pricked as I was reading. It probably explains, at least in part, why it wasn’t quite as successful for me the second time around.
Eli and Zane are both doctors at a Chicago hospital. Eli is a working class guy, a former policeman who was injured in the line of duty and then decided to switch career tracks and become a doctor. He’s 43 and a year out of residency. He’s a “hospitalist” which Google tells me is a kind of in-hospital GP. Eli has found his vocation in medicine. Zane comes from a wealthy family of doctors and was always destined for medicine. He doesn’t love it like Eli does but that seems to be mainly because he cares more about the patients than the politics and the money and he’s a bit jaded by the latter. He prefers to work in the free clinic (which is where Eli and Zane met when Eli came for a second opinion about his work injury) but funding is low and it looks like the clinic will be closed.
Eli was married but his wife left him after being too long alone as a policeman’s wife and then a medical student’s wife. Ever since Eli and Zane met, there was a connection between them and they became very close friends. Now, years after that first meeting, they are kind of joined at the hip. They hang out together all the time and are casually affectionate – so much so that their other good friends in the hospital, Diana (a cardiologist) and Holly (a psychologist) tease them constantly about whether or not they are gay. Holly and Diana ask Eli where his “wife” is and they don’t mean Marybeth, the ex; they mean Zane. That it’s a gendered comment isn’t really addressed in the book. Zane is a guy – shouldn’t he be a “husband” in this scenario? I think what they meant is that Eli and Zane, to all appearances, get on like a (happily) married couple. That’s how I read it the first time but I admit the “wife” tripped me up a little on re-read.
The set up is basically that these two guys are just clueless and need Diana and Holly to give them a push in the right direction. In the end, Zane proposes an “experiment”. He will kiss Eli and if, as they expect, it is gross, they will be able to tell Holly and Diana they’re wrong and the teasing will stop. They’re both unprepared for what it means when it is anything but gross.
The story is told from Eli’s third person POV and he is extremely taken aback by the arousal he experiences from Zane’s caresses. It opens a door to him seeing Zane in a new way and noticing him as a desirable being as opposed to being in the “best friend” slot to which Eli had previously assigned him. It becomes clear that Zane had been thinking about a romantic attachment for some time but my impression was that both are nevertheless surprised at how much they desire each other and how right a sexual and romantic relationship feels. (Zane’s character is a little murky because we are never in his head – he’d been thinking about being with Eli sexually for a while but he says he’s surprised by how good it is when it actually happens – I took him at his word – I guess others might not.)
Eli is not a fan of public displays of affection by anyone to anyone. He didn’t even like holding hands with Marybeth in public back when they were married. Zane is much more openly affectionate and this represents a challenge to Eli.
I said earlier that the men were “casually affectionate” and this was part of why people assumed they were a couple. But that kind of affection isn’t the same as a public display in the sense of holding hands or kissing and Eli sees those things as quite different. The kind of affection he’s comfortable with in public is more that buddy-jostling some guys do, with the faux-punch, etc. And, they have little by way of personal space barriers between them, which sets them apart also. So I didn’t think this aspect of Eli’s character was inconsistent.
The men try sex in
all most of the various ways as the book progresses – some of it is kind of funny as they navigate the differences from previous experience which was, for both, entirely heterosexual. Here I can definitely see the analogy to the “virgin trope” and the reader gets a twofer because this is uncharted territory for both men. In some ways I think that aspect sets this book apart (whether in a good way or a bad way is perhaps open to debate) because most Gay for You I’ve read has one gay partner and one straight-until-then partner.
Eli and Zane are such good friends and so close, that even before the sex, they could virtually complete each other’s sentences. They know each other so well that, once they commit to the romantic aspect of their relationship, there is very little conflict between them. Zane isn’t close to his family and Eli doesn’t have any and all their friends are from the hospital. Of course, everyone at the hospital thinks they’re gay already so coming out isn’t the same kind of experience as in other books. Even so, Eli does have occasion in the book, more than once, to specifically and categorically state that he and Zane are together as a couple and this challenges Eli so it’s not like coming out is without challenge for him. On the other hand, apparently, Zane has no such difficulty.
Much of the conflict in the story is apparently about career issues – the free clinic is closing and Zane needs to do something else; there is a potential opportunity elsewhere for Eli and, despite the fact that these guys are very close and talk about everything, they actually don’t in this instance. I think this sudden lack of communication is because they are finding their footing as a romantic/sexual couple rather than buddies and that leads to some mis-steps. Still, when the proverbial hits the fan, it is kind of a whiplash moment. Things are great and then, literally, within ten minutes, things have turned to custard. They are fighting about career issues but at its heart, it turns out to be not about that. I didn’t make the leap between the two so I felt a bit left behind there.
I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked it well enough (perhaps in spite of myself) and there was angst toward the end (hint: Zane is allergic to strawberries) which worked for me even if the final argument confused me because I felt it hadn’t been set up sufficiently. But it stretched my credulity a little too much to think that Eli, having been such close friends with Zane for years, having been constantly teased about being a couple by other close friends and he never ever thinks about it at all? Never? And then, after one kiss, he’s all “okay then, let’s go”? So I think there is a fairly large element of wish fulfilment in the story. I feel it was written with the female gaze in mind.
On the other hand, there are good things – the ex-wife isn’t demonised and the other females in the story are strong, positive and have lives of their own outside of the main couple. The story features an older pairing which I liked and I liked how Eli and Zane talked about sex and how they navigated those uncharted waters.
I didn’t like it as much the second time around but it was still very readable and I breezed through it in a very short time. And maybe it is shallow of me but I love that cover.
With my sensibilities having changed in the four years since I read the story however, I think it was a book which was better in memory.
All that, mixed up together to come up with a grade? I think it probably comes out at about a C+.
I’m always on the lookout for some MM, since it’s one of my favorite genres. I feel like I run into this issue so much, though. The whole Gay for You trope just makes the characters’ romance seem insincere to me. It’s so much more realistic to me when it’s something they’ve been struggling with for a while, even if it’s something new to them. Bummer, because I was hoping this might be one to try.
Probably because I haven’t read as many m/m as you guys, but this one does sound interesting to me, and I liked the few pages you can browse at amazon. I will put it in the list of “when it’s on sale next” and see what I think of the full affair.
Thank you for the review, Kaetrin, always much appreciated.
@Laura: @azteclady: I can read some Gay for You occasionally and every now and then it feels like it’s done well and seems believable. I’ve been a bit burned by some book which seem very fetishizing and appear to be written for the female gaze and it’s more about getting two hot guys together than anything that feels like a real relationship.
I didn’t feel like it was fetishization so much in *this* case but unfortunately (or fortunately?) every book I read comes with my own reading history and baggage and changing sensibilities.
I’ve been reading M/M for over a decade, and have never viewed Gay For You as problematic. I suspect that’s because I’m pretty selective about what I read, and the authors I see using that trope do so in a very self-aware, skillful way. I would go so far as to say that most of my favorite M/M writing is what you’re labeling “Gay For You,” because my kink is not just M/M sex, so much as M/M sexual discovery. I like reading about people discovering that their sexuality is more expansive and complex than they’d previously realized.
So what disturbs me about the objections to Gay For You, as least as they’re laid out here, is the total absence of any discussion of bisexuality. Remember bisexuality? That sexual orientation that encompasses sexual and/or romantic attraction to people of more than one gender? The plot you describe doesn’t sound like “Gay For You” in some sort of derogatory way to me. It sounds like a story of sexual discovery and shifting sexuality identities–something that happens *all the time* in real life, far more commonly that our monosexual culture bias likes to admit, and that is most often precipitated by attraction to, wait for it, attraction to a particular person.
So when a plot is essentially “man was into women; man meets other man and falls for him,” you can either dismiss it as “Gay For You,” OR you can read it as a totally common, garden-variety discovery of bisexuality narrative. It’s a bummer to not even see that mentioned anywhere in this essay as a possibility.
Hi WintryMix, I am not Kaetrin, but I wanted to say that if “gay for you” would actually described bisexuality more often – I personally would have significantly less issues with it than I do now. Sure, I would *like* to read it as you described, the thing is in most “gay for you” plots I really can’t, because the attraction to women is never mentioned or acknowledged any more, after the guy turns gay for that special magical, person.
And I am not saying that it happens all the time, but it so far happened in a lot of books with this trope and I have read a lot of them.
I am always pleased when the guy comes out as bisexual and want to see it more often, for sure. I remember screaming in some of my reviews (amazon reviews) – when the guy does not even pronounce that word, and struggles how to define himself – am I gay, am I straight, I was saying – remember that word, “bisexual”? You can say it (the character), it is not as scary as you may think.
Thanks for listening and Kaetrin, thanks for the review.
@WintryMix: The thing is, this isn’t an essay, it’s a book review and there was nothing about bisexuality in the book, hence no discussion of it in the review. The m/m roundtable I reference in the review (most particularly in the comments) is where we talk about bisexuality in m/m romance and if you check there, you’ll find that I and many others are really happy to read about bisexual characters and would like to read more of them.
As far as *this* book is concerned, it is fairly and squarely “gay for you”. Neither character identifies as anything. Eli specifically checks out various other men before he takes the step of going back for kiss #2 with Zane and he is not attracted to any one of them. He has no attraction to any male except for Zane – that is made explicit in the text. And, apart from some casual mention of way-back-when sex with his wife (he’s divorced now), there’s no particular attraction to anyone else either. Just Zane.
In the second book, (the review of which will be posted here at some point) there is a point where Zane gets upset with Eli for even using the word “bisexual” in the same sentence. And again, both decline to put any labels on what they are to each other. They describe it as “two friends who fell in love” and they don’t look beyond that. If they don’t identify as bisexual, then I don’t see how I can do it for them. In fact, I specifically took a reference to bisexuality out of the review for that very reason.
So I didn’t discuss bisexuality in this review. I didn’t feel there was a place for it. And frankly, I think you jumped to an unfair conclusion of my views on the topic. I’d invite you to check my other reviews featuring bisexual characters or the comments of the m/m roundtable.