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.