The Understatement of the Year by Sarina Bowen

TheUnderstatementOfTheYearWhy I read it:  The author kindly provided a review copy.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  What happened in high school stayed in high school. Until now.

Five years ago, Michael Graham betrayed the only person who ever really knew him. Since then, he’s made an art of hiding his sexual preference from everyone. Including himself.

So it’s a shock when his past strolls right into the Harkness College locker room, sporting a bag of hockey gear and the same slow smile that had always rendered Graham defenseless. For Graham, there is only one possible reaction: total, debilitating panic. With one loose word, the team’s new left wing could destroy Graham’s life as he knows it.

John Rikker is stuck being the new guy. Again. And it’s worse than usual, because the media has latched onto the story of the only “out” player in Division One hockey. As the satellite trucks line the sidewalk outside the rink, his new teammates are not amused.

And one player in particular looks sick every time he enters the room.

Rikker didn’t exactly expect a warm welcome from Graham. But the guy won’t even meet his eyes. From the looks of it, his former… best friend / boyfriend / whatever isn’t doing so well. He drinks too much and can’t focus during practice.

Either the two loneliest guys on the team will self destruct from all the new pressures in their lives, or they can navigate the pain to find a way back to one another. To say that it won’t be easy is the Understatement of the Year.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me that this romance featuring a gay couple is part of this series.  Sure there are people who, for whatever reason, will not want to read a romance featuring two guys, but I love that it’s just seamlessly integrated into the Ivy Years.  I’d love for queer romance of all stripes to be a tag rather than a separate subgenre.  Books like these make me think we might get there one day.

As to the story, I liked it very much and I’d certainly recommend it.  For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as earlier books in the series. Perhaps it was merely my reading mood or perhaps it’s that I’ve read quite a few coming out books already. Maybe it’s my heterosexual privilege showing but I did think Bridger’s situation was more dire than Graham’s, so I wasn’t quite as sold on the angst.  I did enjoy the book very much however.  It’s like saying that I like chocolate cake better than banana cake – I mean, they’re both awesome cake right? (Mmmm…. cake.)

The Understatement of the Year takes place at roughly the same time as The Year We Hid Away.  So, the year Bridger has quit the team and is meeting Scarlet, Rikker is transferring to take his place and meets up again with Mike Graham.  The story is told from the alternating POV of both main characters and I think it is this which saves Graham in many ways. The central conflict in the book is Graham’s denial of his sexuality and how he clings to the closet.  He and Rikker were best friends in high school and gradually, they became aware of a sexual/romantic attraction on top of the friendship.  They are both sixteen and both going to a religious school.  Both have parents who are religious but Rikker’s are more staunch and rigid in their beliefs.  After the boys, greatly daring, kiss in (semi)public, they are set upon by homophobes and Rikker is beaten.

This event has a profound effect on both men.  Rikker is banished to Vermont by his parents for the “sin” of being gay and Graham retreats into the closet and never quite recovers from the lost of his best friend.  For Rikker, Vermont is a blessing.  Living with his grandmother, he finds acceptance and unconditional love and in his new school he finds tolerance and other boyfriends and friendships.   Graham resorts to drinking to help him get it up with girls in order to pass as straight and he’s miserable.

Graham’s first reaction on seeing Rikker in the hockey team’s locker room is terror.  Rikker knows. Graham could be outed in a hot second and his house of cards could come tumbling down.  But over time (and this, the book does very well – it is by no means overnight) the things which drew the guys together in high school draw them together in college.

Rikker is out to his teammates, not necessarily by choice.  There is angst for him in being out. He is treated poorly by some members of the team.  He is treated poorly by opposing teams trying to psyche out Harkness.  Graham sees that behaviour and decides his closet is the best place to be.  Even as they begin a clandestine relationship, Graham is more entrenched than ever.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that, given that this book has a HEA, Graham does come out by the end. His decision is in part motivated by his love for Rikker but I felt it was very organic too.  I felt Graham would inevitably have reached the point where he either came out or he killed himself.  Without Rikker, he may well have taken the latter option because he was just so miserable pretending. I think the book does a good job of setting out the challenges of coming out, of showing Graham’s very realistic fears being played out in Rikker’s actual life.

This book felt a little hotter to me than the earlier ones.  That might be because there were more sex scenes – but I think their number is explained by the fact that it is through physical intimacy that these guys reveal their truths to each other for the longest time. Their irresistible connection is more than just sexual attraction but it is through touch and sex that they reconnect with their feelings and begin to share them with each other.  For those who haven’t read m/m before, it’s not super explicit. It’s about the same level of detail as in the previous books but with two guys instead of a girl and a guy.

I enjoyed the humour which lightened up some of the heavier aspects of the story and also served to dispel one or two stereotypes.

“Can you get this?” Bella handed me a bottle of wine, the cork halfway out. “I thought I had it.”

I set my much-needed beer down on the table to do her bidding. Tightening my grip on the corkscrew, I levered it out slowly, trying not to break the cork. That done, I wrapped my hand around my beer bottle again.

“Thanks! Coach’s wife asked me to bring her a glass of white wine. Do you think she meant the chardonnay, or the pinot blanc?”

“Sorry, Bella, but I’m not that kind of gay friend. I wouldn’t know a pinot blanc if it bit me in the ass.”

Graham discovers, in Rikker’s embrace, that he feels peaceful and happy. That he doesn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders and he can sleep through the night for the first time in years and years.  That, combined with other events and realisations in the book are the impetus for him to come out and he finds it is amazingly freeing.

I would have liked the book to go on a bit longer than it did.  In Rikker’s story, we had seen that he did face homophobic abuse and worse but Graham wasn’t really subjected to it after he came out. I wanted to see how he’d manage.  I thought the ending had a bit of the fairy tale to it and I would have liked Graham to experience the real and feel okay with it to be sure he would really be okay.  That said, I did respect his decisions at the end of the story and I appreciated that he needed to come out at his own pace.

Graham’s behaviour in the alley where Rikker was beaten and the way he snubs Rikker at the beginning of the story, as well as some other stuff, could have made him very difficult to like.  I think his own self-loathing overcame that.  He hated himself so much for those things that it felt churlish to dislike him for them.  I occasionally felt frustrated with him but for the most part I was sympathetic to his conflicts.  That Rikker had a good life in Vermont helped very much too.  That and Rikker’s own self-awareness and generosity.

What I hadn’t wanted to face at sixteen was the fact that my phone made outgoing calls, too.

What else? My other favourite character in The Understatement of the Year was Bella, the team’s student manager and Graham’s best buddy and former friends-with-benefits. She also becomes good friends with Rikker.  I adored her. She is forward and unashamed in her sexuality and takes no prisoners as she wrangles the various personalities in the team.  I love the way the narrative does not slut shame her for her sexual boldness and that she herself does not take any crap about it.

“Don’t treat me like a slut, Graham.”

Shit. With great effort, I propped myself up on an elbow to squint down into her pissed-off face. “I would never call you that, Bells. I don’t think that way.” It wasn’t an eloquent apology, but it was true. Bella was the greatest. She never apologized for what she wanted. She just owned it.

I do hope she gets her own story and HEA. (ETA: The author tweeted me she’s working on Bella’s story now. Yay!)

Grade: B+

BUY IT:
AMAZON     KOBO

 

5 comments on “The Understatement of the Year by Sarina Bowen

  1. azteclady

    Whenever there is great angst in coming out in stories, particularly athletes, I remember Ellen DeGeneres’ own public coming out–and the three years of shunning/unemployment that followed. It’s not an easy choice to make, because people who come out/are outed, have a truly hard row to hoe–pretty much for the rest of their lives.

    You are tempting me so mercilessly with these reviews, woman…

    (Also, on the m/m story within a heterosexual series: Robin and Jules. I’m convinced Ms Brockmann, for all the issues I have with later stories and some of her online reactions, helped to pave the way for this in a huge way.)

    Reply

  2. Kaetrin

    @azteclady: Yes, I’m uncomfortably aware that my view of coming out …. issues (for want of a better word) is almost entirely informed by my reading. I have queer friends online but they’re all out (which is how I know they’re queer) but none (that I know of) that I regularly have coffee with ( – no, that’s not right, there is one friend but unfortunately I don’t see her very often but when she came out as bisexual to us we all said ‘cool” and moved on to the next topic of conversation). So I don’t have any real life experience with homophobia affecting my friends, family or colleagues really.

    Coming out certainly was a big deal for Graham and I hope I haven’t minimised it in a heterosexual privilege way. Or, if I have, I hope I have made that obvious so that my disclaimer can be taken into account appropriately.

    I really like this series – they’re first person, alternating POV and (obviously) about college students – for some people that’s just not their cup of tea and that’s fine. But I do love them. And Bella is AWESOME.

    Reply

  3. cleo

    I also liked this one, but not quite as much as some of the others. For me there was too much angst, and not enough flirting and relationship development. Since they had a previous relationship, I felt like we fast forwarded through them falling for each other – and that was my favorite part of the other books. I think she writes flirting and banter really well and I missed that. In some ways, this read more like a coming of age story than a romance – which is not bad, because I thought the growth of both MCs was well done.

    Bizzarely enough, this is the second mm NA that I’ve read recently with a hockey player who transferred schools after he was outed by a photo of a bj (the other is Poster Boy by Anne Tenino). The two books are very different, so I don’t think any hanky panky went on, it’s just funny to me that two authors came up with same scenario. Makes me wonder if something similar happened in real life.

    Reply

  4. Kaetrin

    @cleo: Oh, interesting. I haven’t read that one. It’s funny how sometimes there are books or movies released about similar themes – something in the ether maybe?

    You know, you have a point about the courtship – maybe that was it. Maybe I was pointing to the wrong thing in my review. I was having difficulty articulating what that difference between it being chocolate cake or banana cake was. I love the courtship stuff and the book was a little light on there. Thank you! 😀

    Reply

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