Why I read it: I’ve had this one on my TBR for a while. It was highly recommended by a number of Goodreads friends. Of course, when I actually went to read it, I remembered nothing of the synopsis so it was (as it often the case) a bit of an adventure.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) Emory James is, by his own admission, not the type of person the adjective exciting would ever deign to touch with a ten-foot pole. Cautious, reserved and staid, however, all crowd around him like best friends. Still, he gets by — or at least he gets by up until his fiancée dumps him at the altar. Out of spite, he takes a solo honeymoon to Thailand, where he can pretend to be someone better than himself for a little while. In meeting Nate, a fellow traveler, Emory slowly discovers how to stop pretending.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): This book was an instant delight for me and it was heading firmly into A territory until the plot took a downturn late in the piece. I understand why it happened and even accept that it made sense in terms of the story being told, but it frustrated me and so for that little section, I was a bit frowny. That said, the rest of the book was a entirely charming and funny and wonderful and I highly recommend it.
According to the bio at the back of the book, the author is American. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a very British sensibility about the writing and the story – a kind of Four Weddings and A Funeral style of self-deprecating humor and understatement. This kind of writing suits me very well and I spent much of the book with a big smile on my face.
“Hey, Mister J?” he said, the corner of his mouth turning up slightly at the sobriquet. “Julie said there’s an observation room she usually sits in to watch the session; is it okay if I watch?”
I blinked at him. “Sure!” said the ghost of my prepubescent voice while the rest of me tried to stave off a cardiac episode.
The writing wasn’t just funny (although it really was) it also painted these lovely word pictures that felt so familiar and clever at the same time.
Something sweet and sour twisted in my chest. I couldn’t find words for it; it felt like a first date I’d been on once, when we’d had an effortlessly great time and then we stood at her doorstep undoing it all while we said our goodnights, tangled up in indecision and faltering, nervous to go forward and reluctant to leave.
Emory, for most of the book, stays on the right side of the line between funny and pathetic – he’s a strange mix of self-awareness and ostrich-like avoidance and it is that avoidance that essentially forms the conflict of the book. It is not a gay-for-you story (thank god!).
I was dancing on the edge of something new, though maybe not completely new, if I had to be honest with myself, and I wasn’t sure what I would do if I fell, if falling was an option, if falling was something I was actually meant to do all along.
Emory was content enough in his relationship with Michelle (and Dani before her). There is a sense (and later, an explicit statement even) that he would have been content enough to be married to a woman, with a house in the suburbs, a dog and 2.4 children. He could have been happy-ish. And, not knowing any better, he would not have pined for what could have been. I thought he would have been a faithful and loyal husband to Michelle had she not stood him up at the altar and run off with her ex-boyfriend (“The Good-Looking Bastard”). But once he meets Nate, once he allows for the possibility in his life of Nate, he finds there is a choice between content and safe and joyously happy but exposed.
It was different, and different in a way that made me feel as though everything before this point had been a little askew, a little off-center, but now I was righted, here in this rain, here with Nate.
After meeting Nate on his “solo honeymoon” in Thailand, Emory goes home to Chicago expecting never to see Nate again. He thinks of him often but he views the trip to Thailand as an experiment in being “un-Emory-like” – not so much gay (or bi) but adventurous and daring, maybe a little reckless even. Back home, he is himself and struggles to reconcile the Emory he was there.
But when Nate accompanies his niece Abby to a speech therapy appointment, he is suddenly right there in Emory’s space – permanently in his city even and the connection they found in Thailand has not gone away. The romance develops very slowly. Emory is still getting over a long term relationship (he had been with Michelle for more than three years) and the pain of being dumped and the humiliation of it being so public. He’s not ready for a relationship at that time. So, slowly, slowly, he and Nate become friends and gradually, Emory comes to long for a more romantic intimate connection with Nate. The book is not explicit. On the one hand, I was a little sad about that, but on the other, it was just right for the book. If I had my druthers, I would have liked the bedroom door kept slightly ajar (partly because I enjoyed the intimacy of their relationship in general and was curious how that translated in the bedroom and partly because I am apparently a bit of a perv), but I think to have had explicit sex scenes would have made it a very different story and overall, I was pretty happy with the one I read.
As he and Nate begin a romantic relationship, apart from his (absolutely delightful relationship with his) friend Linnea, nobody knows. Emory keeps Nate separate from his work, his other friends and his family. This is a source of tension and gradually, it becomes the thing which tests the relationship the most. Emory can have a joyously happy relationship with Nate. They are wonderful together and Emory is happier than he’s ever been ever. But to step out into the open, is to expose himself to bigotry and hate and risk. Nate’s own parents kicked him out of home when he came out as a teenager and this is something that plays on Emory’s mind a lot.
It had been a lot easier, in fact, carrying around a vague sense of dissatisfaction, as most people do, for one thing or another, than shouldering the guilt of being different, and it had been easier, in many ways, to try harder at being not different, until trying became an entrenched habit in itself.
I looked, sometimes, but never let it get any further than that, guilt-ridden enough with that tiny indulgence, knowing intellectually that it wasn’t wrong but feeling bone-deep that it was. Armed and delusional with the false security of being un-Emory for a week, Nate had been the first time I’d ever let myself feel what had always simmered underneath the carefully cemented, fortified, steel-reinforced surface, and now I couldn’t not feel it.
What else? As I said above, the narrative did take a turn I could have done without. For me, I felt that for the first time that Emory slid over that line heading toward pathetic. That’s not the right word, but it’s the closest thing I can come up with. I could talk about it more (and I’d love to with someone who has read the book also) but I feel it is too spoilerish to discuss here. As much as I was disappointed, I also felt guilty for feeling that way – I was quite taken by Emory by this point (well, by the end of the first couple of pages actually) and who am I to say how he should react in a given situation? I was feeling quite fierce on his behalf but I also remember it’s not that easy in real life so…
Anyway, the story took a slightly disappointing turn but it didn’t go as far down that path that it could have and I was grateful for that. The last section of the book went back to being delightful and lovely, and also very emotional and touching.
I am a person who doesn’t love ambiguity but the ending was just perfect. And I shall say no more as not to spoil it.
I have this mad urge to tell all my friends who haven’t read this book to read this book. It’s is the kind of book one wants to talk about and sigh over. And, truthfully, a few days after having finished it, the part which bothered me (and at the time it made me quite cross) seems to have taken a backseat to the other joys of the story. Maybe it should have been an A- after all?