REVIEW: Hard Candy by Amy Jo Cousins
Dear Amy Jo Cousins,
Readers first met Vincent Lim and his best friend, Austin, in Level Hands. They and Rafi and Denny are all on the junior varsity rowing team at Carlisle college. Vinnie is uptight and closed off. Austin is out there and loud and they tend to act as a foil for one another and, in some ways, tone each other down. But their relationship is not healthy. Austin has wanted the traditional HEA with Vinnie for ages but tries to content himself with occasional sex with Vinnie – when Vinnie is drunk and decompressing after he’s turned in a paper. If Austin is lucky, this is maybe once a month.
In the book immediately preceding this (Love Me Like A Rock) however, Austin has wised up and realised that he and Vinnie are never going to happen and that’s actually just as well. He’s now happy in a relationship with a rock geek (aka geology major) and, while there is still some strain between he and Vinnie, both know it will settle in time. They have too much history and genuine caring for it to be otherwise.
It seems however, that Austin wasn’t the only one who thought the two friends and occasional fuck buddies were destined to be together. Vincent has realised that he left his run too late and the some-time-in-the-future plan he thought he had with Austin has all changed. He’s not entirely sure how he feels about that. A little lost, sure, but his romantic feelings for Austin weren’t really defined either. I don’t think Vinnie loved Austin (in the romantic sense), but instead saw him as a “safe” and distant-future option – maybe as some kind of get-out-of-being-alone-forever card?
Which brings us to the opening scene of Hard Candy, where Vincent wakes up with a terrible hangover, in the bed of a stranger who holds a wastebasket for him while he pukes. Vincent’s memories of the night before are spotty but he does know that he and …. the stranger, had very unspectacular sex (very unspectacular) and the reasons for embarrassment just keep piling up. Great.
However, Bryan Latimer (that’s his name – Bryan!) has amazing sangfroid and takes it all in stride. Vinnie doesn’t exactly know how he ended up in Bryan’s bed but he’s nonetheless drawn to this guy who is nothing like Austin – nothing like anyone actually.
Bryan is a delight. I adored him. He’s a black gay man who leans to the feminine side of the spectrum. He’s all man (Vinnie particularly notes Bryan’s masculinity even when Bryan is wearing a skirt), so much so that he’s comfortable in mesh half shirts, eyeliner and lip gloss, and pink booty shorts. Bryan is out there but in an entirely different way to Austin. This challenges Vinnie on a number of levels. Vinnie comes from a strict Korean-American family. His parents reluctantly accepted his homosexuality but the less it is in their faces, the better. Vinnie is usually buttoned up and locked down. Bryan lets it all hang out (metaphorically speaking).
For all their differences however, they have a lot in common too – it’s just that their commonalities are not on the surface. Vinnie has struggled for acceptance in his family and dreads obligatory family dinners. He works brutally hard for every grade – he is constantly aware of the expectations of his parents and his obligation to live up to them. Bryan was kicked out of home for being gay and has struggled with acceptance everywhere. Bryan is a physical therapy student with a minor in performance (dance) and even within the Carlisle cheerleading team he keeps himself distant. He’s been hurt so much before, it is difficult for him to let anyone in. At the same time, he has very clear rules – he doesn’t “do strike three” for instance and he demands to be treated with respect. The juxtaposition between confidence and self-respect and deep vulnerability and loneliness was fascinating to me and felt very authentic.
Vinnie likes rules. He understands clear guidelines and here, Bryan is a true blessing. Bryan has few filters and makes it very clear what he wants and what he will accept. Vinnie isn’t in any doubt of what Bryan thinks about things and for someone like him, who struggles with subtext (I feel you Vinnie), this is a boon.
Bryan is attracted to the hot jock type (and, as a rower, even though Vinnie is not really a jock in the ordinary sense, he has the body for it) but has been burned before by guys who want a walk on the wild side but are unhappy to be seen with him. Bryan won’t “tone it down” for anyone. He’s sacrificed too much for his identity and he’s not going to hide. Unfortunately, this also puts him in the firing line for casual homophobic slurs and overt homophobic aggression. Vinnie, who has not experienced much of this at all (his appearance, closed-off-ness and his physicality limit his exposure here) is outraged and horrified.
Bryan… laced their fingers together after slipping into a deep-plum coat that swung from his shoulders to swirl around the calves of his boots. His hand squeezed tightly around Vinnie’s as they stepped into the hall, and Vinnie wondered if this was what it felt like every day for Bryan. Like strapping on armor and a shield before stepping onto the field of battle and hoping the wounds you’d bring home wouldn’t be fatal.
Ultimately, Bryan makes Vinnie want to be a better man but it takes a while for Vinnie to learn how to flex those muscles. He hasn’t had the motivation to learn before. But, just as Bryan teaches him to bend gracefully with yoga sun salutations, he also shows Vincent how to be more open about his feelings and what he wants. (Although, it is Rafi who gives Vincent the “come to Jesus” message about just how difficult he can be to be around.)
The story is a novella but could easily have been a full length novel. There was enough meat to it to warrant a fuller exposition, particularly of Bryan’s story arc. As much as I liked Vinnie and felt for his romance-klutziness, it was Bryan who drew me the most. Perhaps for the same reasons as Vinnie. Bryan is so completely himself and he lives his life fully exposed, but at the same time, hiding and protecting a kernel of vulnerability. Vinnie sees all that and thinks that his job is to protect that kernel for Bryan so that Bryan never feels vulnerable in the spotlight. It was kind of beautiful actually.
There aren’t many m/m romance books where one hero expresses a preference against anal sex. I know there is a whole subsection of the m/m readership who don’t think sex is real until it is anal. (I’m not in this subset.) But Bryan doesn’t like anal sex much. It is a very occasional thing for him and something from which he gains not the usual sexual satisfaction when it does occur. He much prefers touching, frottage and oral. And, as it happens, this suits Vinnie just fine. (There was a reason he needed to be loaded to have sex with Austin – and it wasn’t about Austin.) I loved how Bryan and Vincent defined their own sexual relationship and I loved how it was celebrated in the book.
Vinnie learns his own discomfort is far less important than Bryan’s comfort and Bryan learns that there are people worth opening oneself up to; that some people can be trusted and are worth the extra vulnerability that takes.
I hope I see more of Vinnie and Bryan (but especially Bryan). They are so good together and for each other.
The resolution to the asshole bigot threat storyline felt a little too easy and I’d have liked to see a more systemic approach from Carlisle. However, the way it was portrayed in the book, showed a very powerful method of dealing with homophobia (and assholes) and how important it is for marginalised people to have others to stand with them.
I was left wanting more. It’s difficult to tell if that was because I adored Bryan (and Vinnie, but mainly Bryan) just that much or whether there wasn’t actually enough in the book. In any event, I loved this book and heartily recommend it. Grade: B+