Why I read it: I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley. I’m also friendly with Sarah Frantz and the author on Twitter (although those relationships made me want to read the book, they didn’t affect my opinion of it).
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) The universe is a glitterball I hold in the palm of my hand.
Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.
Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.
But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?
What worked for me (and what didn’t): Sometimes, what seems on the surface to be the strangest pairing, is not so strange at all when you really look at it. Ash is bipolar type 1, with an anxiety disorder on top of it. He is a successful author, well off financially and fond of bespoke suits. He is cynical, sharp, articulate, intelligent and, let’s face it, a bit of a snob. He is also… passive. He feels like his life is basically over, his mental illness having robbed him of the life he thought he would have.
Darian, on the other hand, is almost exactly the opposite. He’s an Essex boy who does a bit of “moddlin’” – think Zoolander meets The Only Way is Essex (which, for the US audience, is a British Jersey Shore). That is; exactly the kind of person the reality TV watching audience loves to watch in order to feel superior (sometimes, this has been me). At first, Darian seems like bit of a joke character – his complexion is unashamedly orange from his fake tan, he’s (apparently) not too bright, and has a broad accent which many would perceive as a further reducing his already average IQ. He’s the unsophisticated opposite of Ash. I wondered if Ash would accept him as a romantic hero? I wondered whether I would.
By page 56, I had all these ingredients: despair, desperation, depression, self-hatred, stupidity, snobbery, scorn – what was going to be made out of them after a good mix and stir? I decided that I wanted Ash to start accepting himself and actively dealing with his illness rather than being so… passive about it*, for Ash to see more in Darian (and by that, me) than the surface, to find in him someone to be proud of and joyful about. For Ash to open himself to love and life.
(*I work in injury management. I don’t suggest for one minute that dealing with serious mental illness is easy. But my experience has been that whatever injury or illness someone has, they generally do better when they take charge of it. Sometimes the shift is not much on the outside – it is all or mostly internal, but feeling any sense of control or self-direction is one of the rehabilitation keys. I also understand that it can take time to reach such a point and I’m not knocking anyone who’s in the throes. But, for Ash to reach a HEA, he needed to be in a better place emotionally than he was, so I wanted him to get there – and I didn’t want it to be the power of true lurrve (TM) – for it to stick, it needed to come from within.)
Ash looks down on Darian at the start and I shared Ash’s journey to appreciating the glorious beauty of Darian. To the point, in fact, where I also shared Ash’s concern that Darian was too good for him.
Ash hates himself and everyone else (with the possible exception of his friend Amy). He’s shocked, scornful and not-so-secretly appalled by his attraction to Darian. His cutting, sarcastic remarks to Darian aren’t in fun, although Darian tends to take them that way.
Darian may be (is) unsophisticated but (like everyone really), he isn’t simple. He has an uncomplicated view of life and an easy acceptance which has been missing for Ash with his peers and friends. Ash has been pitied and pitiful with his friends and he hates it. With Darian, at first (because Ash does not disclose his illness), Ash can feel almost “normal”. But, even after Darian finds out, it doesn’t faze him in the least. In fact, the entire Essex crowd are like that. What started off as being what I thought was a scathing satire of the Essex stereotype ended up being a bit of an homage actually. They were nicer and more “real” than many of the people in Ash’s (limited) social circle. Certainly kinder than and more graciously welcoming than the wedding guests at Cambridge.
That said, there were some fond (and really funny) digs made – the way Chloe came to name her shop “Bedazzled” for instance.
As I’d hoped, the book also contains the story of Ash’s journey from being a passive prisoner of his mental illness to someone actively managing his illness and taking charge of his life, while at the same time accepting that this is his ongoing reality, that he will never be “cured” and will be prone to bouts of depression. Accepting that nevertheless, he was a whole person. In short, Ash stops hating himself and in doing so, is able to open himself up to feeling joy and love. While Darian is the catalyst to that journey, it is, thankfully, a journey that Ash takes alone and one which both he and the reader knows is not dependent on Darian.
What the book also does is, quite delightfully, portray a beautiful man in what is initially the most unlikely (and orange) skin. It is very much a case of not judging a book by it’s cover. Darian is so very much more than the slow-witted loser he first appears to be. I felt quite protective of him by the end.
Darian is generous, kind, loyal and charmingly naive in some ways. He is kind to his “Nanny Dot”, with whom he lives, he very very rarely swears, he doesn’t drink or do drugs – he enjoys himself “a hunjed pahcent” without those things. He is self-aware and unashamed in it. He knows he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed but, for the most part, he’s not especially embarrassed by it. He’s happy to ask when he doesn’t understand something. What stops him from being a Marty Stu is that he stands up for himself. While he acknowledges the apparent gulf between them, he will not accept poor treatment from Ash or anyone. He also doesn’t let Ash slide on using his mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour. He seems to have an intrinsic understanding of what is merely an excuse and what is actually Ash struggling with his demons. And he had endless patience with the latter while at the same time having none for the former.
But Ash, wasn’t as worthy of Darian. Ash, from past experience, believes himself incapable of sustaining a successful relationship. He believes it is inevitable that he will hurt Darian and push him away and this becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. In being convinced that he’s no good for Darian, Ash refuses to fight for him after he stuffs things up rather spectacularly.
Darian’s general attitude to life and the difference between his view and Ash’s can be summed up here:
“On the contrary, it’s because I’m quite good at maths. Scrabble isn’t a game about letters, it’s a game about numbers. There’s no poetry in it at all. If you’re looking to make beautiful words, you’re looking to lose.”
“Well what wif it being a game, maybe I’d be looking to ’ave fun or summin crazy like that?”
Even how Darian views his career is a teachable moment for Ash. Darian has no illusions he will be the next David Gandy. He hopes to make some money and he takes pride in what he does. But he doesn’t aspire to the catwalk in Milan or the next Dolce & Gabbana ad campaign. Ash struggles to see the point of doing something that can’t be done exceptionally well. He’s in the game to win. Darian is in the game for enjoyment and the satisfaction of participating.
As Ash and Darien combine to make dinner, what they produce again highlights the gulf between them and in the doing, also reveals again Darien’s value.
Truthfully, it didn’t go. Not even a little bit. The cottage pie was about as wholesome and straightforward as you could get. It was food for winter evenings and happy days. And the salad was rich, complicated, a little bit sweet, a little bit sharp, and seemed to be trying way too hard to be impressive. We’d both served each other a metaphor.
The reader is never allowed to pretend Darian is anything other than what he is however. His accent is on the page in all its atrocious glory, a constant reminder of their difference, a constant challenge to overcome inherent snobbery and see beneath the glottal stop and the inability to pronounce “th”, to the substance (immensely valuable) under the fake tan.
“‘Nose and eyes, from what we hear, often indicated by hands.’ Five letters.”
“’Aven’t a clue,” he said, at last. “That don’t even make no sense.”
“It’s ‘votes,’” I said, scribbling it in.
“Well, ‘from what we hear’ usually means sounds like. ‘Nose and eyes’, sounds like ‘noes and ayes,’ you know, yes and no, and voting can be calculated by raising hands. So it’s votes.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, nodding. “Wait, what am I saying? I’d’ve nevva fought of that in like a million years. You’re so clever, babes.”
I cleared my throat. He’d said he thought I was clever before (I am clever—mad, but clever), but I don’t know why it suddenly made me uncomfortable. “It’s just about learning the tricks,” I said, awkwardly. “Once you know how they’re put together, you can solve them. It’s got very little to do with being clever. Want to try another?”
I think this is the first time that Ash realises that his treatment of Darian to that point had been poor and he begins to develop a conscience about it.
By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure I completely trusted Ash to take good care of Darian. I think I needed to see them together more for that – either in the middle before the Black Moment or after it, at the end. I had enormous confidence that Darian would cope with whatever came up, including the potential for Ash to have either a depressive or manic episode. But I was less convinced that Ash would stand and fight too. He said the words but his actions to that point had been less than emphatic.
Added to that, they were so much fun together, I just wanted more of it. The scene where Ash and Darian play Nabble (a variant of Scrabble) is delightful. And funny. Darian picks up the game quickly and his additions to it were clever and witty and just as worthy of anything Ash came up with. It was one of the many ways the author showed me, over and over, that Darian was “amazin”.
The writing style is somewhat ornate with some overuse of metaphor – but many of them were so beautiful that I could easily forgive it.
The tapestry of my life was a ruin of unravelling threads. The brightest parts were a nonsensical madman’s weaving. And now every day was a grey stitch, laid down with an outpatient’s patience, one following the next following the next following the next, a story in lines, like a railway track to nowhere, telling absolutely nothing.
Also, the imagery of “glitter” is very prominent in the book – it’s used over thirty times. Myself, I could have used the word cropping up less frequently, but then, it is called “Glitterland” so I guess that means there should be glitter everywhere right? (Truthfully, I think the title was a metaphor for the shimmering mirage which was, for Ash, either potential approaching mania or approaching joy and the attraction, uncertainty and the seeming unreality of both).
Some of the sentences in this book struck me as having immense meaning.
And I wanted to be inside, surrounded by walls I had chosen.
As someone who has had personal experience with depression, that was familiar and poignant to me.
The description of depression in general indicated deep understanding, not just passing acquaintance
To cease to be.
That was something I could never make Niall understand, though I don’t know how hard I’d tried. I had never wanted death, merely cessation; unfortunately, sometimes, they seemed to be the same thing.
and how simple tasks can become major achievements and markers of success.
The world was somehow a place I could endure again. If life was a grey corridor lined with doors, it was now within my power to open some of them. Having experienced such unqualified success with the “eating some soup” door, I opened the “having a shower” door, followed by the “reading the newspaper” door. Not wanting to push my luck, I then went back to bed.
Darian’s acceptance of Ash’s mental illness is matter of fact. He doesn’t marginalise it, but sees it as a smaller part of the whole that is Ash. He, even, demonstrates a sense of humour about it.
“You don’t understand.” He touched my arm and I shook him off. “I know Stephen Fry has you up to speed, but I’m not charmingly quirky. I’m clinically insane. I’ve been in hospital. Involuntarily. Because I was too nuts to know I was nuts.”
“We’ve all got flaws, babes.”
I glared at him. “You’re not taking me seriously.”
“Well, you just said you was mental.”
What else? I was left a little confused about the relationship dynamic between Ash’s friends, Amy, Max and Niall. But, as the story was really more about Ash and Darian, I didn’t get too bothered about it. And, by the end, I felt that Niall had moved on. Whether Max and Amy were destined for a HEA was anyone’s guess I think.
When thinking back on the book as I was writing my review, as much as I would have liked Ash and Darian to spend more time together, my main thought was how well the author had succeeded in that initial challenge of making me see Darian as a romance hero. Because he totally did.
Grade: B B+