A Brief but Vital History of OK

I have officially fallen down the rabbit hole of research for the new novel, since it takes place in early 20C eastern US, and I’m trying to, you know, be accurate with my unrealistic nouvelle-magic-realism-story.

My funnest find today:

“OK “ was supposed to be a joke. In the 1830s/1840s in Boston, it was all the rage to abbreviate everything, because Cool Bostonians were too busy to, like, say whole entire words. People ran around saying, “That’s an NG!” instead of “That’s a no go!”(or, more correctly, “that isn’t going to happen!”) and “Bob is GT, like everybody else” instead of “Bob has gone to Texas.”

(Why, Bob, why? I can see wanting to get out of Boston, but Texas? It’s super hot.)

So, “OK” was part of that language craze. But there was a joke in it, too. “OK” stands for “Orl Korrect,” which is a Hey I’m Being Silly-Talkin’ way of saying “All Correct.” So it was, at its inception, supercool in-crowd talk for “yep.”

So, moral of the story: 1840s Americans were HILARIOUS, yo.

Think of THAT every time you say “OK” now. Okay?

(Oh, and OK, it just occurs to me, are the initials of the main character of the novel, too. Well, it all comes full circle, doesn’t it, and I’m sure it means SOMETHING.)

REVIEW: Into the Blue by Pene Henson

Into the Blue by Pene Henson (July 7, 2016); 236 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

“Sometimes we don’t get to keep things exactly the same. They can still be good.”

–Hannah, in Into the Blue

The Blue House is a crumbling, aqua blue seaside house on the North shore of Oahu. It’s home to a small found family of surfer kids: Tai Talegi, Ollie Birkstrom, Ollie’s younger brother Jaime, Hannah and Sunny. The ocean is practically at their back door, so they spend their days surfing the Banzai Pipeline and working or going to school when they must. The story centers around Tai, a budding board shaper, and his best friend Ollie, a world class surfer clawing his way back to the top after a pretty rough injury had knocked him out of competitions.

When Ollie gets tapped to compete in a worldwide tour surfing competition that will take him to places as far flung as Australia, Tahiti and South Africa, he asks Tai to come along as his supporter, board tech and coach. Though they have the “greatest friendship in the world,” once they’re away from their normal lives and everyday family, they discover that they can—and must—have more together.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and of course, things get in the way. But what’s central here is a kind of lighthearted-yet-determined struggling: the beachy, slapped-together home life of all the kids (who care for each other and work for each other to make a tight and fiercely intimate little family); Ollie’s climb back from injury to compete as a world class surfer; Ollie and Tai’s shaky, nascent love as it grows, a love which pulls them closer and farther apart like a tide, everyone’s desire to Figure It Out (the It being What to Do in the World and Whom to Be). This made me long for the days of that kind of brilliant patchwork life, full of uncertainty and people and love and risk and absolute newness, as difficult as it was rewarding. I remember windows wide open on weekend mornings, coffee cooling on the stove, sprawling meals we all cobbled together around a second-hand table (avocado, pancakes, a bowl of cold black beans, whatever we could scrounge, held together not by how well it fit but by how hungry we all were, how determined we were to call it a meal). The shared meal was the one moment of stillness we found together in our otherwise wide-scattered lives. This book puts me back there, in the best of ways. Life in the Blue House is like this.

It strikes me that this book is about people trying hard to hang on, trying to keep alive what’s precious to them. It’s what everyone in this book is doing: Blue House life is threatened again and again (by everything from absence to eviction) and the kids have to figure out how to persist; Tai tries to discover how to do what he loves while still staying loyal; Ollie’s trying to hang on to his life as a surfer though it’s really hard work that pulls his focus and sends him far away; Jaime’s on the cusp of college and all the kinds of leaving-behind that usually entails; Ollie and Tai find love but don’t know how to bring it home (for them, home threatens their love and their love threatens their home, and there’s no clear solution). Everyone is desperately trying to hang on. (And I’m refraining from making the point that surfing is also about hanging on, mostly because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to surfing. I can barely balance myself on land.) Okay, and that’s another thing I can say: it’s about trying to find your balance. And let me point to back to that quotation with which I started: it’s about finding new and beautiful kinds of good, without needing to hold rigidly to what was good in the past.

There’s lots in this book you won’t see coming. That seems to me to be part of the point: insecurity, searching for solid ground (even surfers, seriously). There’s a lot that threatens to tip over, and the gentle suspense is tightened by the backdrop of Ollie’s progress in the worldwide surfing competition as we see it through Tai’s eyes. It is, at its heart, a love story between two men who have always been friends, but that story is intertwined so skillfully with a comeback story, and with several different coming-into-oneself stories. The writing and the pacing are exactly right for this: quick, smart, clean, but descriptive enough to stir up real longing in the reader.

Everything in this book presses you forward, and you move with it happily, looking for the end you both want and don’t want. Is that a surfing metaphor? Not intentionally. Like I said, I have no idea what I’m talking about there. But it strikes me that bodies of water do that: ebb and flow, undertow, push forward at the same time you pull back. It seems like the whole exercise of surfing, like reading, may be self-defeating: the joy is in the brief ride that must be brief to be joyful. The very thing (the wave, the book) that thrusts you onward must inevitably come to an end and leave you behind.

Happily, unlike waves, which you can only ride once before they’re gone forever, you can re-read and re-read a book.

 

 

REVIEW: Set Me Free by Kitty Stephens

Set Me Free by Kitty Stephens (June 9, 2016); 256 pages. Available from Duet/Interlude Press here.
 
Aaron Ledbetter is supposed to marry his childhood friend Lyn; their parents, both heads of wealthy families looking to further their own power, made the decision long before Lyn and Aaron could talk. It’s a good thing Lyn and Aaron have grown to be best friends. All this would be fine (well, not fine, but tolerable), except that Aaron’s gay and both he and Lyn have their own plans.
 
Enter Jonas “Lucky” Luckett, who’s scored a job as a caricature artist at the carnival on Tybee Island where Arron’s and Lyn’s families vacation. Aaron and Lucky meet (in the men’s bathroom, of all places, but innocently enough), and everything seems to settle into place. This becomes the story of Aaron and Lucky falling in love and working out how to manage the different forms of distance and familial resistance they face in order to be together. They strike up a semi-secret (Lyn knows) summer courtship.
 
The title (SET ME FREE) sets us up to understand this as Aaron’s story—he’s the one who’s trapped by his family (well, so is Lyn, but her role in this story is to the side), and he’s the one Lucky might save. The “freedom” of that title is an either/or: the freedom allowed by financial success and familial/social support, versus personal freedom to live as he pleases (no Harvard, no wife).
 
Despite the focus on Aaron (and, to a lesser degree, Lucky), one of the biggest joys of this novel is Lyn—she’s feisty, smart, independent, and totally roots for Lucky to be happy (she’s all the things a GBF could want, really); there’s stuff going on for her (her own secret loves, her own aspirations and interests) to which the reader isn’t much privy (since Aaron doesn’t see it, and the narration alternates between sitting on Aaron’s and Lucky’s shoulders). She’s clearly got depth beyond what the other characters see, and it shows in little flashes here and there. (In fact, I’d love to see the novel from her point of view, her own story and her own desires coloring this world. She’s got a lot going on, not the least of which is being forced into marrying Aaron when she’s in love with someone else and knows her husband-to-be is, too. But this isn’t her story—there are plenty of stories of straight girls falling in love with the man of their dreams; this one instead belongs mostly to Aaron.) Lucky, too, proves to be feisty and smart and rooting for Aaron. The only people who don’t seem interested in rooting for Aaron are the “parentals,” as Aaron and Lyn call their parents. Aaron is, well, pretty lucky.
 
Since this book is published by Interlude’s young adult imprint, Duet, I’m going to try to rewind myself about 30 or 35 years to remember what it was like to be a young adult. (Yes, we had books back then, you jerk.) For young folks wishing for love, struggling with familial control/approval, and just figuring out their own independence, this book will hit some really right notes, not the least of which is the longing for freedom and independence from familial/social control (oh, kids, I’ve got bad news for you… that usually never goes away).
 
It makes itself a version of a “topsy-turvy” world. Since probably only people who have studied medieval Europe will understand that, I’ll first apologize, and then say that the notion of “topsy-turvy” was what undergirded Carnival/e (a tradition in many, many countries, which is now most notably seen surviving in celebrations in Rio and New Orleans): every year, the society would hold a festival in which all usual hierarchies were inverted (the king would act like a peasant, a peasant got to be “king,” gendered roles and behaviors were reversed, etc), and in this way the brief celebration acted like a steam valve, letting off the pressure in a brief and controlled way (so that the rest of the year, everybody stuck to their expected roles). Tybee Island vacations seem to be intended to function this way for Aaron’s family, but this year the “flight of fancy” (yes, it is related to a “fugue state,” and thus a musical fugue, since “fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight”), the summer fling, is intended to be just that: a retreat into fantasy that lets one go back to the plodding difficulty of your normal life afterward.
 
Except, when Aaron and Lucky meet, everything goes topsy-turvy for the summer, but then sticks for good.

REVIEW: Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist by K.E. Belledonne

Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist by K. E. Belledonne (June 23, 2016); 188 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, not to make this book review all about me, but I’m going to talk about me for a moment. I prefer to identify as queer—not lesbian (though I do, when asked, agree), not gay, but queer. It’s a political thing. Part of that political thing is feeling suspicious of marriage, its effects and meanings. (I was one of the queers who opposed American gay marriage in theory but advocated for it in the political short term because it was the quickest, surest way to gain all the rights and privileges legal marriage confers on straight folk in the United States.)

That said, I married my partner when gay marriage became legal in the U.S., despite political misgivings. My resistance was not about my feelings for her, but about the expectations that we queers would conform to the straight values of legitimacy/legality, visibility, monogamy and, well, conformity, by accepting something that was a barely-modified form of a straight social/political institution. No sooner was gay marriage made legal than non-marriage was made socially illegitimate, and resistance was futile.

That said, I sure do like my Married Person tax breaks and extra rights.

I needed to include all these explanations at the start of this review because this book takes as its situation the event of a gay wedding/marriage. To be quite honest, I balked a bit, worried a bit about reading the story (even as I trusted its author) because of my feelings.

But enough about me. What do you think of me? (Just kidding; I don’t care what you think of me.  This review is only a bit about me and my feelings. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I think of this book. Which is both about me and about this book.)

Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist is fun. It’s funny, smart, sunny, romantic, by turns heartbreaking and sweet. It’s all the good things one expects of a rom-com. The characters are wise and complicated enough to be interesting without being too complex to understand. The situation is probably common enough that anyone who’s tried to throw a traditional wedding (or watched folks do it) will empathize. The writing is smooth and gently wry.

Here’s the deal: Daniel (a glasswork artist) loves Erik (an archeologist), and Erik loves Daniel, but when Daniel starts using a mobile phone app to plan their impending wedding, things spiral down the drain right quick. The app persona (Aurora), who is a minor character throughout the novel, is genial enough, but in the stress of planning every detail of an elaborate, classic wedding, it suddenly dawns on Daniel (get it? Aurora? Dawn? See what I did?) that he’s miserable, and everything breaks down rapidly from there. The two men wind up in different countries, on different paths, in different worlds, but similarly heartbroken.

Daniel seems to be all about form: he gets sucked into the Wedding Industrial Complex and agonizes over the differences between two essentially-identical paper colors for their invitations (this reminds me of that scene with the business cards in the film version of American Psycho), while Erik is over it and unafraid to say that he thinks the whole mess is ridiculous. One of them seems most driven by the glory of the ceremony (the wedding), and one seems more concerned with the glory of the outcome (the marriage). Between them, a vast political chasm. Filled with broken glass. And hungry wolves. With guns.

This story has all the trappings of a good rom-com: a hostile bestie secretly in love with one of the grooms-to-be, a few folk who root for the couple, a seemingly senseless but realistic breaking point, an interloping new love interest, and a dramatic journey to proclaim love and establish renewal. Like Belledonne’s first novel, Right Here Waiting, this story intervenes in a traditionally-straight narrative (in RHW, the war romance; in this case, the wedding-centric rom-com) and inserts gay folks at its center without changing the narrative too drastically. It’s one way of claiming territory to extend the borders of a previously-hetero-only institution to include outsiders while keeping the institution recognizable. (Another way is to change the institution itself, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

DESFUWC a fun, beachy, lovely read. It’s engrossing (I read it in two large gulps over two evenings, because I didn’t want to stop). It’s sweet, and gently harrowing (in that bad things happen, but somehow you know it will all be okay in the end).

Ask me, because you knew it was coming: “do you take this book?” I totally do.

 

 

REVIEW: Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley

Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (May 5, 2015); 326 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I just flew through Go Your Own Way, and boy, are my arms tired.

JK, you guys, my arms aren’t tired at all. I could easily fly through another book about these characters. This is the first book in a series (…of two? …of more? I don’t know yet!), and when I got to the last page, I was unhappy to read “The End” and then an announcement that the story would continue in the next book. THAT book, which I have been calling Go Your Own Way 2 in my head but is really called With or Without You, will be released on July 21, 2016. Even though that’s less than a month away, I’m feeling anxious to get my hands on it so the story can continue.

Go Your Own Way is two stories, intertwined. The chapters oscillate between points of view: there is Will Osborne, a “good kid” struggling to drag his too-obviously-gay self through a hoary and hostile public school, when in comes the “hood” (do the kids today still say that?) Lennox McAvoy fresh from reform school, a sort-of classic Bad Boy with whom Will is assigned to work on a year-long literature project. Soon, Lennox has him in his Sex Crosshairs and sets up a relentless effort at seduction. It’s all very effective, except that he’s crude, situationally tone deaf, and sometimes mean as a wet cat caught in a corner. OK, well, it’s still pretty effective. Will soon discovers that Lennox is more than just a jerk: parents dead, he’s been dumped by a cold grandfather in an unlockable motel room where he bars the door with a steamer trunk and scrounges an existence from pilfered fruit and well-read books, while in the parking lot outside, racist (you’ll see) homophobes throw glass bottles at his door and threaten him with violence.

Despite Lennox’s rough and oversexed nature, Will falls. And then Will’s father lands in the hospital in a coma, so Will is left worrying with his stepmother (who’s kind, who’s a nurse, and who’s hanging onto Will with all her remaining strength) while his father persistently deteriorates.

It’s the story of two boys who have lost parents (both Lennox’s mother and father have died; Will’s mother died when he was younger and his father appears to be about to die). But while Will’s father (before he landed in the coma) and stepmother are both caring and supportive, Lennox’s grandparents take neglect to the edge of hate (it probably doesn’t help that they are white and Lennox’s mother was Black, making him “not quite/not white” (as Homi Bhabha wrote) and the object of the white grandparents’ scorn). So it’s the story of socio-economic privilege learning to trust and care for/about someone without (without home, safety, nutritious food, a caring and present family…), and also the story of someone without learning to trust and care for/about someone so privileged. It’s also the story of the very different ways privilege can affect our experience of difference—being a middle-class, white, gay boy is radically different from being a poor, parent-less, gay boy of color.

But this is me being preachy; the novel doesn’t preach like this. Instead, it tells a really great story, part love story (and that is also the story of how to reach across a flaming divide of privilege and difference) and part tale of danger and rescue (I mean that both ways: how to rescue someone you love and how to rescue yourself—both are dangerous).

As Will falls deeper, it turns out Lennox is also really smart (a math ace), and kind of lovely when you peel off the stinking jerk skin he wears for protection.

Go Your Own Way is suspenseful without literal ghosts (though the memory of dead parents haunts this, and there are ghouls in the motel parking lot who haunt and threaten Lennox); it’s emotionally engrossing without the over-high drama of a pantomime. It exercises every nerve I’ve got, keeps me teetering and balancing on edge, worrying, hoping for some safety and peace. It makes me want the story to continue (and, yay, it’s about to do so!), even though my damn proverbial arms are tired.

The sequel, With or Without You, is available for pre-order from Interlude Press here. It will be released on July 21, 2016.

 

REVIEW: Right Here Waiting by K. E. Belledonne

Right Here Waiting by K. E. Belledonne (February 10, 2015); 220  pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Right Here Waiting tells the story of a man serving in the military as a U.S. pilot during World War II and his lover, who waits for him to return home. It’s got all the trappings of a good war story, but it isn’t an historical novel. The way to read this novel is as a fantasy, a fix on history, a make-it-right. Folks looking for an absolutely accurate account of WWII will be disappointed…but that’s sort of the point.
For those of us gay folk yearning to see ourselves in a romantic, Casablanca-like wartime history (feeling unsatisfied with the winks at queers through the gardenia-scented Peter Lorre), this novel aims to fix our desires, to re-tell the history with us at the center.
Right Here Waiting is a love story between two men (Ben Williams and Peter Montgomery), whose clandestine-ish love affair is interrupted when Pete joins the US armed forces as a pilot and is shipped overseas to join the war. Ben, with his bum leg, is left waiting at home for his return. What follows Pete’s departure is a pastiche of memories, letters, longing, and the tension of war, until Ben and Pete can be safely united again.
Here’s why I call this a fantasy: Ben and Pete are really in love, and many of their close friends and colleagues know it and support it without the slightest bat of an eye.  In fact, there’s no tension or angst around The Gay Thing, other than a bit of covering-up the two do to keep their relationship secret (hint: they kind of do a shitty job and everyone knows anyway, but nobody cares). This is not a novel about the real struggles of being on the down-low (especially in the military), nor the dangers we queers faced (well, face even now, though less so), nor the mitigated support we often receive from straights (who are cool with us as long as we don’t act too queer); it’s a novel about two people in love who are forced into separation by war and violence, who worry and fear for each other, who risk death to find each other. For once, instead of Bogart and Bacall, those two people both get to be men.
This isn’t the story of two men in love. This is the story of two people in love who have a continent and an ocean and bombs and violence keeping them apart, told as if their genders don’t matter. It’s a story about how to hang on, how to find comfort where you can, how to wait for love and safety, but how to grab it, too.
I’m not mentioning the rest of the story: there’s Pete’s wonderful, supportive squadron; there’s Gwen Andrews, the famous singer/temptress who entertains the troops; there’s the best gal-pals who help the boys maintain their connection.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a fantasy, but there’s still death, and near-death, and injury, and danger. There just isn’t homophobia or hate or that kind of fear. It’s kind of nice to read a romance about queers that doesn’t include an obligatory bashing or hate-mongering jerk who dumps a malted on their heads or something.
I’m all for realistic fiction. I’m usually bothered by attempts to paper over queer presence and queer suffering, but that doesn’t seem to be the point here. The point of Right Here Waiting, rather, seems to be to intervene in the war story genre itself, to make a great and brave love story between two men. You can bet those stories happened (and still do), but they probably weren’t this romantic, beautiful, gripping or happy. Then again, straight romances don’t look much like Bogie and Bacall, either.
In the wake of the horrible homophobic events in Orlando and the mainstream media’s  subsequent erasure of queers from the tragedy, I’ll take any day this sweet and charming fantasy that insists on re-inserting us not into history, but into romance.

REVIEW: In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack

In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack (May 19, 2016)l; 336 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I’m going to come out of the closet here as someone who loves grammar. (Sorry to disappoint, but I long ago came out of the sexuality closet.) I’m coming out as a grammar nerd (okay, a queer grammar nerd) to say how much I love the title of this book.  First, the double meaning of “tense”—this refers both to a time-bound verb form (is it past? Is it now?) and to the feeling of tightness (in the situation/plot, in the emotional line, in the urgency of the characters’ needs, all of that). Second, that multiple meaning of “present”: when we refer to the “present tense,” we generally refer to verbs capturing the now, the immediate action; when we say “presently,” however, we mean “soon” (not “now,” as many people assume).  Both those words are full of multiple meanings and the insecurity of meaning itself.

In other words, this title perfectly captures the quite successful intellectual juggling act of the novel—it tosses all those balls in the air and manages to keep them flying, and beautifully-so.

Miles Lawson is caught between: either he can time-travel, or he’s mentally ill; he unpredictably shuttles between his struggle in the current moment (in which he’s committed to a shady mental health facility) and the past (in which he and his then-love Adam struggle); he is still in love with Adam while being married to Ana; he both loves his wife and doesn’t trust her.  There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away—suffice it to say, Miles Lawson is fraught.

When I read this novel, at several points, I actually said out loud, “yeah, but what’s real?” I think that’s very much the point, for me—the reader is strung as precariously as is Miles himself (and as, probably, all the characters are). There are no truly evil characters here (not even the seemingly-evil Dr. Brannigan—it’s possible to understand him as a moustache-twirler, but also possible to humanize your view of him in this novel, see him as a character with dire motivations, too).

What I loved here was having to relinquish myself entirely to the novel, not to be sure at any moment in the plot, never to fully understand what the novel “was” until it was over. Giving over control of oneself, especially one’s mind, like that is rather scary, even in this small way.

Oh, hey, look at that! Did you catch it? The novel doesn’t just tell the story of Miles’ difficulty, nor vividly show me that circumstance; it puts the reader herself into a similar difficulty, lets her really feel it. Neither showing, nor telling, but being is its mode.

It strikes me now, as I write, that this novel is about—in so many ways—empathy (I distinguish this deliberately from sympathy, a form of pity). To fully empathize, I have to feel the feelings of and understand the experience of both myself and another person at once (to sympathize, I need never truly feel the other person’s world, and need never truly relinquish my own ideas).

But all this intellectualizing is how I, generally, enjoy books.  I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of chamomile (see? I’m being empathetic). For those of you impatient with such a view, I can also say: In the Present Tense is a hand-wringing, exciting novel you’ll love to read for both the thrill and the romance it offers.

 

 

 

 

Review of SWEET

So, writer Rachel Davidson Leigh has published a really lovely review of SWEET on their website, and I’m spreading the word like a proud…something proud.

Go check out the review and browse that excellent website! (RDL was first published in SUMMER LOVE, an anthology of LGBTQ short stories from Interlude Press last year, and has a novel coming out soon.)

RDL’s review of SWEET

Review: HELLO CRUEL WORLD by Kate Boernstein

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bernstein.  From Seven Stories Press (July 2006), available here.

I bought this book for my wife as a gift, but read it before she got her hands on it. It’s a vital book, especially at this moment, when news of “bathroom bills” and the resulting legalized harassment and abuse of trans folk who dare to… exist… in public seems to be mounting by the day.

This book is going to save lives. Maybe it will prevent some suicides from happening–one hopes–but even if that’s not the case, it’s going to change the lives of those who read it for the better by helping readers wade through the mire of things-we-know about gender. It’s going to make us all rethink, or think better… and by that, love each other better.

Boernstein writes in a clear, relatable way, about gender. I’ve been teaching versions of “gender studies” at the college level for decades now, and I’m going to sit with this book over the summer to relearn how to talk about this stuff. Boernstein makes it very clear that you can talk about very complex ideas in understandable ways without dumbing down.

Another lesson I’ll take: I cried, like, really a lot reading this. I also snickered, and downright laughed; sometimes I did all three at once. All of this is good stuff, productive for thinking; in other words, the tone of this book isn’t just an extension of Boernstein’s writer persona in the world, and isn’t just about “relating” to teens–it’s a carefully-chosen stance with respect to the material and the thinking. “Real” thought (the kind academia finds valuable) isn’t necessarily best when it’s detached, stoic, and without investment. “Real” thought belongs to all of us who are invested. This book proves that.

 

Review: LOVE STARVED by Kate Fierro

Love Starved by Kate Fierro (April 21, 2015); 304 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here .

I’m coming a little late to the reviewing party, since this book came out almost exactly a year ago, but perhaps it’s good timing, to be writing about this story when the initial flurry of reviews has quieted a bit.

It’s hard to say to which main character in this book the title refers—they both seem a bit “love starved.” Micah is a busy, successful writer and “information security” guy who’s alone because he’s sworn himself into it after a too-long bad relationship and subsequent breakup with a Class A controlling jerk.  He’s given the card of an escort called Angel, whose performance involves romance and attentiveness and things that feel like real dates (and, oh, by the way, really expert sex); in loneliness, Micah calls Angel. The two have some “dates,” or “encounters,” or whatever scare-quoted euphemisms might convey that they go out and they stay in and do kissing things together during which Micah’s head almost twists itself off from how lovely it is to be treated with such kind and caring attention.

But Angel keeps mysteriously cancelling on him, or running out at the smallest chirp of a text message, and everything festers awful when Angel can’t keep up the glossy veneer anymore and his body—quite literally—breaks down in front of Micah.

Angel needs rescuing, and Micah wants to rescue. But things can’t rest easy like that—the days of princesses in towers are over (if they ever were even under), and chivalry didn’t die so much as it got rejected for being rather imbalanced, power-wise. The story would be pretty damn disappointing if Micah were welcomed to swoop in, fix everything, and carry Angel off on his shoulder.

Instead, what happens is a more careful attempt at recognizing someone’s humanity, a negotiation in which both players have a say: not a rescue, but an offered hand-up and the choice to take it or not.  And afterward, there’s a rather messy mess to sort through. This is the loveliness of this story: it seems fully conscious of the path we expect it to take (because all love stories take that path, depending on a rescue and chivalry and the rejection of one form of prostitution for what usually resembles another… and if you can stand the gagging and irritation, you can re-watch Pretty Woman for evidence) and does not take that path.

I’m trying not to say too much about the plot here—except that it’s compelling, a path down which one races to discover what’s at its end.  The reader wants to do this, in part, because, in the best of ways, the story doesn’t fulfill expectations—it takes on the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, but doesn’t become its servant. What I really want to talk about is how this all ends up, but I’m in a quandary, because doing so requires either that I give away the plot or do some fancy footwork to avoid that and still say what I mean to say.

I’m going to try the footwork, though I’m a pretty terrible dancer and I walk with a cane. Let’s watch me try:

The final chapter of this novel jumps ahead a bit in time, after the plot seems to have resolved itself, and lands in a pretty clichéd place. But then I kept reading, and it turned out not to be the place I thought it was, and I was so relieved, and so happy that it wasn’t that clichéd place the plot hadn’t seemed to earn yet.

(Phoo, getting winded from all this tap-dancing… I’m going to have to sit in a moment.)

What I’m trying to say: there is what seems to be a deliberate disobedience of formula at the end of the story that I just adored. This, from a story that had all the elements to make a Pretty (Wo)Man cliché but chooses, instead, to work at realness (see what I’m getting at here? It’s like the plot itself: fantasy escort dates that become, with effort, real love).  The fantasy of love, as Micah learns, as we learn reading along, is way less satisfying than the flawed, sticky, banged-up and difficult real deal.

The fantasy is tempting, for sure (in this case, it’s promised through a flashy special-effects business card that changes to be what you want as you look at it and comes with a gentlemanly, attractive package wearing a sport coat and carrying roses).  But this story takes, at each turn, the harder path, the more genuine one—it takes off the sport coat, puts down the flowers, and revels in the imperfection of its characters. And that, to bastardize Frost, has made all the difference.

(OK. Now I’m going to fold up my walking cane and take a rest here for a spell, maybe watch some YouTube videos of good dancers.)