What it’s about: (from Goodreads) The diagnosis of a chronic stomach condition leaves thirty-two-year-old Sergeant Jed Cooper with little choice but to call time on his Army career. Then on the dusty streets of Kirkuk, an ambush gone tragically wrong decimates his team, and he returns to the US with a shattered leg and the memory of his best friend dying in his arms.
Life in his sleepy hometown proves intolerable until he finds solace in a lakeside cabin with vivacious young carpenter, Max O’Dair. In the shadow of the epilepsy that periodically plagues Max, he and Jed form an unspoken bond. After a late night episode, Jed realizes how much Max means to him, and life has taught him not to waste time.
But the lines between contentment and complacency are blurred. Things left hidden resurface to tear through their world, and before they can repair the damage, death comes to call again. Faces, past and present, rally around them to weather the storm, but before long, they are left with only love.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): I liked this book quite a bit but I have to say it doesn’t have the usual romance structure. Or, at least, the structure I expect anyways.
Jed Cooper returns to Ashton, Oregon after being medically discharged from the Army. He suffered some severe burns to his left shoulder and a serious wound and break to his left leg (multiple surgeries and pins in his femur) in a mortar and air attack while on convoy in northern Iraq (circa 2006). Those injuries were so severe he was shipped stateside and he was in hospital for months. They are the obvious injuries. But he also has a condition called gastroparesis. It is a paralysis of the vagus nerve which controls the stomach and means that the stomach doesn’t move food on into the small intestine in the timely manner it should. It causes abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, anemia (iron is much harder to absorb through food) and is a lifelong incurable condition. Eating is difficult and it can obviously be a very debilitating condition. Jed, being the person he is, doesn’t tell anyone about the gastroparesis. He’s a man used to being relied upon, not one to rely upon others.
He joined the army at age 18 after being kicked out of home because he’s gay. Even though DADT was active at that time, it seems he found welcome acceptance and brotherhood and purpose in the army, while at the same time being traumatised from the various horrors of war he experienced. His brother Nick, from whom he has been estranged, begs him to come home to recuperate and back in Ashton, he meets his sister-in-law, Kim, and his two beautiful (but very active) nieces, Belle and Tess. He also reconnects with former best friend Dan Valesco. Jed was unofficially adopted by the Valesco family and he is very close to Dan’s parents in particular. Dan’s younger sister is now a physical therapist and Carla becomes Jed’s treatment provider in Portland.
Jed and Nick don’t really get along well – there is a lot of water under the bridge and it is apparent that Nick has a serious alcohol problem. Kim suggests that Jed might find more peace to rest and recover renting a room in her brother’s cabin near the lake. It is rustic and peaceful and it would have the added bonus (for Kim) of meaning that Max has someone around if he gets in trouble. Max (who is also gay – but it was not my impression that it was a set up or that the sexual orientation of either man was part of the suggestion to share a cabin) is epileptic. He has an alert dog but Kim worries that he is alone up there.
Max has secrets of his own which don’t come out until later in the book. To be honest, that part of the story felt a little underdone and kind of unnecessary. There was plenty going on without adding in yet another subplot. It didn’t get the page time it needed to properly developed and it felt kind of forced.
The romance is very much a slow burn. Both men are good looking so there is physical attraction present from the start, but it was noticed and then mainly set aside. Jed is often morose – Max doesn’t know it but Jed has episodes of incredible pain and days where he can’t keep any food down. He has trouble sleeping; sleeping at night, sleeping indoors, sleeping using a pillow – he sleeps a lot during the day. He is often away from the cabin doing PT.
Max builds and repairs boats and makes furniture in his spare time. He is a vegetarian and grows as much of his own food as he can. He has a couple of chickens for eggs. The herbal teas and organic food are helpful to Jed, as it Max’s gentle reminders for him to actually eat. Cultural aspects of Max’s family were slipped in seamlessly into the story (Max’s mother was born in Kinshasa), particularly in the African dishes he likes to cook.
I said at the start that the structure was unusual. In terms of the romance, there isn’t a point where the men decide they are together. They don’t date. They share a cabin and then after (quite) a while, they have sex. After that, they regularly share a bed but don’t do much more than kiss for a long time. They don’t discuss their relationship or lack of it, or their feelings or anything. They just kind of keep sharing a cabin and a bed and gradually the emotions are revealed – but more by action than any deep and meaningful discussions (or at least, not until the very end). It seems everyone else notices and labels their relationship before Max and Jed even think of themselves as being in a relationship. I’m used to seeing a more… active courtship – in this book, the men kind of fell into it. I didn’t think it was mere convenience however – there was a strong connection and good chemistry between them but it had a weird kind of passivity to it.
The disability aspects of the story seemed well researched and authentic. The problems each man had were neither romanticised nor overstated. Both wanted to be independent and they had to learn to rely on each other in ways that didn’t interfere with their own sense of self-worth. Max’s relationship with alert dog, Flo, (I’ve always had a soft spot for border collies) was symbiotic in many ways and Flo bonds with Jed quickly too and becomes worried for him when he’s unwell also.
Quite a bit of the story is about Jed fitting in again at home – life back in Ashton, life after the army, his gradual acceptance of other people into his life, his grief over the loss of his best friend in the army and recovering from his leg injury. There is mention of symptoms of PTSD and here, the book fell down a little. Jed is very reticent – he doesn’t like talking about himself or admitting to any weakness so he’s not the best candidate for therapy, but apart from depicting flashbacks, nightmares and odd reactions when out in public spaces, the narrative didn’t really take it much further. I don’t think you can wave a magic wand and be over PTSD (not that the book suggested this was possible either). There is a very brief conversation between Jed and an old army buddy where they acknowledge (it seemed to me) that getting used to civilian life is hard and it takes time to adjust but, given the focus on the other problems he and Max were coping with, I felt this was kind of just… left. It felt realistic to mention but I was expecting something be done with it. Perhaps it’s my failing but I felt that some kind of therapy needed to be at least mentioned to round out this storyline aspect.
Late in the book, Jed suffers a serious gastroparesis relapse and the truth of his condition comes out. It is only when things look dire, that either man can contemplate what the other means to him.
What else? The epilogue was both good and bad. It wrapped up some loose ends and for other issues, it indicated general forward motion without any clear resolution (which was fine). It also had three sex scenes (they were all at once, does that count as three?). It felt a little excessive. The book has some reasonably explicit sex scenes in it (about what you’d get in the average contemporary) but there isn’t a lot of it. It is a very character driven book and even though there is a lot of external activity, it also felt very introspective to me – perhaps that’s more the tone than anything else. The sex in the epilogue felt a little bit… like it had to meet some kind of quota (?) or magic depiction of all the various ways they can have sex and that felt a little forced. It was well written but it was kind of jarring within the context of the overall story, if that makes sense.
Right near the end, Jed’s army buddies come to visit – some of their talk was in a kind of ambiguous code – other readers may get it just fine but I’m not very good with ambiguous – I prefer more overt, so I had some curiosity about things which were probably not even very important in the bigger picture – but for me they distracted a little. There was a tonal shift when the army guys turned up and, while I liked it, I think maybe I’d have liked it better if they’d turned up earlier in the story.
Even though this is a romance and so I knew it should have a HEA (it does), at one point in the story, things were looking very dire indeed and I thought the emotion of those times were especially well written.
It was an unusual book and I think it tried hard to do a lot. Some of it was done very well, some it didn’t quite pull off for me but overall, it was a solid, character-driven romance with a melancholy overtone. I liked it very much and plan to read more from this author.