REVIEW: For The Love of April French by Penny Aimes
CW: Transphobia, misgendering, discussion of racism, sexual abuse (mainly emotionally) abusive adult BDSM relationship)
Dear Penny Aimes,
I was keen to read your debut novel which features a white trans woman and a Black cis man navigating a relationship, particularly because you are a trans woman yourself. While I don’t make the mistake of thinking that April’s experience is your own or universal, I did feel confident April’s depiction would be authentic and sensitive.
April French is a 32-year-old trans woman living and working in Austin, Texas. She does something involving data (I admit the details were very much lost on me) for a sizable corporation and has good medical insurance which is super important for her of course as she is still having treatment regarding her transition. She is also active in the local kink community. As a pansexual submissive, she has a reputation at the local kink club, Frankie’s, as a bit of a “Wendy” – always looking after others. She’s also regarded as the “welcome wagon”. I didn’t love that terminology really; it seemed to diminish April somehow. I think this was because April does actually long for a long term relationship, someone to call her own. She just does not believe she can ever have it. So she restricts herself to short-term interludes and tries to protect herself that way.
Dennis Martin is a tech whiz having made millions (literally) with a Seattle startup. He’s realised he’s not cut out for the stress of a start up however and has made the lifestyle choice to take a job as a Chief Technical Officer at business which does something to do with Medicaid (again, I got a bit lost in the details but maybe USian readers will understand that better than this Australian did. It didn’t make any difference to my thoughts about the book though). The business has offices in various places in the USA but he is going to be based in Austin. His friend, Jason, with whom he grew up in Seattle has invited him to Frankie’s and on his first night in town, Dennis goes to the club – and meets April.
He is instantly smitten. Dennis is a Dominant who had a bad breakup (the details of which are eventually revealed later in the book) and who hasn’t really had much interest in a new relationship since. However, almost immediately on meeting April he’s starting to think long term.
April doesn’t let herself think long term, does not dare to hope. And therein lies the core conflict of the book.
Plus, of course the company Dennis is going to work for is also the same one where April works – but this conflict feeds into the main one rather than exists as something separate.
Dennis is Black and of course has experienced racism over the course of his life (and will again) but he has little experience with transgender people. He isn’t familiar with terms such as “TERF” and he does make some missteps in the relationship, asking April to do things which seem kinky and fun but for a trans woman would be downright dangerous. He does, over time, educate himself, not relying on April to explain everything – another thing I appreciated about Dennis.
He watched, listened to, and read stories from trans individuals. Stories of stunted youths spent pretending and always watching to see who was noticing and stories of young transitioners tentatively asserting their truth with their parents behind them; stories of relationships that couldn’t take the strain and stories of the ones that did; stories of humiliating questions from HR directors and crushing assumptions by store clerks, and stories of inclusive policies and how they made people feel.
After just about every story he wanted to hug April and never let her go. Microaggressions and concepts like psychological safety weren’t new to him, God knew. But now he was learning a whole new register of them in addition to the ones he’d experienced all his life and the ones he’d learned to notice for Jason’s sake, the last time he’d attended PFLAG meetings.
I thought it was interesting the way that Dennis notes certain similarities in his own experience of racism and Penny’s experiences of transphobia and transmisogyny. It made sense that he would be able to relate to it that way but I also appreciated he understood that the they were also not the same. I expect it’s the kind of book where some readers might go along on a kind-of parallel journey with Dennis. I only very occasionally found the book a little didactic. Mostly the education was seamless and integrated.
Dennis is not gay – he identifies as straight. He did some experimenting in college and realised that he wasn’t into men. I’m not going to discuss April’s genitalia here. That feels wrong somehow. What is important is that she is a woman and Dennis always thinks of her that way. As he says to her “I can work with anything” when it comes to body parts. It never fazes him that April is trans. He identifies her as trans immediately, always thinks of her as a beautiful woman. April does not see herself as pretty at all really and she knows she does not “pass”. I haven’t read a great deal of romance featuring a trans characters (part of that is my bad and part of it is fear of reading bad representation which is why I try and read trans authors) and the few I have read featuring a trans woman, transitioned as adolescents and had puberty blockers. April didn’t transition until well into adulthood. She has to navigate a lower vocal tone, facial hair and (as she puts it) “the shoulders of a linebacker”, among other things. I was happy to see the representation on-page of a trans woman who does not pass. Her experience is going to be necessarily different in some ways at least to that of a trans woman who does. (April is never resentful of other trans persons.)
April was married to a cis woman and in a dysfunctional BDSM relationship which became more so after her transition. Ultimately, that led to divorce and April’s relocation some years earlier to Austin. She still has some baggage (as one would) from that relationship. It is one of the reasons she is convinced that she is not destined for her own HEA.
April is kind, generous and desperately lonely. She’s the reliable one who always helps out at Frankie’s, sorting out their social media and guiding other subs to avoid Doms who don’t exactly break the rules but who should nonetheless be avoided. She is a caretaker but who takes care of her? Dennis is also a caretaker and he wants desperately to be April’s safe place to land but he carries his own baggage from his prior relationship and this hampers their communication somewhat.
I liked the way they talked about April’s transition. It broke my heart a little that she had been so sad and vulnerable and it made me cheer for her all the more to get her HEA.
“Do you think of it as being a different person?” he asked.
“I don’t think he was ever anyone,” she said. “Just someone who had a lot of problems and wasn’t very happy and wasn’t even a real person for the trouble. But he kept us alive until I could… I could take over. I have to respect that.” She took a gulp of her drink.
He considered. “Where were you while all this was happening? Or is that the wrong question? I know it’s not really a split personality.”
“I was there,” she said, looking thoughtful. Looking vulnerable in a way that made him want to protect her from the world. “I was somewhere, I guess. Nobody ever asked me that before.” She studied his lapel. “I was hiding, I guess.”
The BDSM depicted in the novel is not super kinky/confronting – I’ve certainly read far more explicit books. While the book is set in and around a kink club, it is not what I’d call an erotic romance. In fact, much of their sexual interaction is about withholding orgasm. I did like the attention Dennis paid to consent and safewords and I liked that there was on-page depiction of their use – including this one:
“Shit, shit, yellow!” she panted. “One second, one second. Yellow.”
Dennis froze and tamped down the fires raging inside of him. “What’s wrong, lovely? Are you hurt? Is it—”
“No, no, just—can you put a towel down? This comforter takes forever to dry.”
where the interaction continued afterwards.
The structure of the book is a little unusual; in fact it threw me a little at first. The initial section is alternating Dennis/April POV but then the we go into “part II” where it is only April’s perspective. The prologue of that section is six months into the future and then the story proper backtracks and time moves forward to that six month point again. Then the next part tells the same time period from Dennis’s perspective, including some sections which are identical other than we’re in his head, are expanded, or new. Part IV is April and Dennis again, alternating. That “prologue” bit certainly knocked me off kilter – for a while I was a little lost. Fortunately that feeling did not last and I got into the groove pretty quickly.
There was one thing I was not a big fan of but it is very much a case of “your kink is not my kink” rather than being objectively not okay. Dennis calls April “doll” much of the time. At first I thought it was merely a pet name and that was fine but as it happens, his kink is a bit more specific than that and the name had a different emphasis after I understood it. I’m not really sure how I felt about it. But April wasn’t bothered and that’s the main thing.
I did find it a little unlikely that it took such a long time for the work “secret” to come out. And, there were some story threads which were only touched upon where I’d have liked a little more detail. But I did believe in Dennis and April and I was charmed by them. For all that the setting is overtly sexual, were I to describe the romance, mainly I think it’s sweet – in that charming and happy-squishy way. I related to both main characters in their longing to find that special someone and their happiness at actually doing so.
Considering this is your debut, I can only look forward to what’s next.