Sunday, 7 February 2016
#CBR8 Book 9: "The Understatement of the Year" by Sarina Bowen
Rating: 4 stars
Michael Graham and John Rikker were best friends growing up, spending all their time together, playing hockey either on the ice or on a gaming console in Graham's den. Until the summer when it was quite clear that their friendship was turning into something else and they couldn't keep their hands off each other anymore. Taking every chance they got to be together in secret, their developing relationship came to a violent end when they were caught by a gang of homophobic bullies. Graham managed to run away, Rikker didn't, and ended up in hospital. Then he was shipped off to live with his grandmother and Graham did his best to forget him and the feelings he had, retreating so far into the closet you'd think he'd end up in Narnia.
Five years later, Graham gets a nasty shock when Rikker walks into the locker room after a hockey game, having transferred colleges because he was outed at his previous school and deemed undesirable on the team. Flooded with fear and guilt, Graham knows that Rikker has the power to destroy him with a word. He's terrified that Rikker will admit that they not only knew each other in high school, but used to hook up. It's not the comments, snide remarks and outright slurs Rikker has to face makes it look all that appealing to be openly gay on a college hockey team either, so Graham descends into a shame spiral of denial and repressed lust and tries to bury his true feelings with copious amounts of alcohol. His best friend Bella and occasional fuck buddy, Bella, is worried about him, but doesn't understand why he's careening out of control.
It's quite clear that sooner or later Graham and Rikker are going to have to talk and face the past between them. It's also obvious that both guys still have a lot of complex feelings for the other. Graham isn't ready or interested in coming out as gay and Rikker isn't going to force him, even though he's no longer willing, or able, to live a lie. It's going to be a very tense hockey season for two guys at Harkness College.
I haven't read a whole lot of gay romance, which is probably something I should work on changing, and I have very little experience outside my own hetero normative existence. None of my gay friends or colleagues have ever (as far as I know of, it's not like they tell me everything) had to face serious condemnation, harassment or violence because of their sexual identity. Their families, friends and co-workers have never been anything but supportive of them and while there are narrow-minded and violent bigots everywhere, Norway is a very progressive country with equal rights granted to lesbians and gays in regards to gay marriage, adoption, assisted fertility and the like.
At the same time, I work at a school where many of the teenagers are extremely hostile to the idea of homosexuality and several kids have said they think it should be outlawed or that gay people should be imprisoned or stoned. In the six years I've worked there, I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of kids who have been confident and strong enough to be out openly at the school, and then usually not until tenth grade, when their peers are getting a bit more mature and ready to graduate. What I'm trying to say with these TL, DR paragraphs is that I have no idea what it's like to be gay, and certainly not to have to hide your sexual preferences, feelings and desires because you might be faced with harassment or violence if you showed your true self.
Hence Michael Graham's struggle and complete denial wasn't always easy to relate to. While Rikker was beaten up and rejected by his bigoted family, he clearly ended up in a much better place than Graham, as his grandmother was a loving and wonderful woman and Vermont was a much more open and accepting place to grow up. He was able to openly live the life he wanted, at least until he applied to play hockey for a religious college and was outed by a malicious ex. The management at the varsity team at Harkness are obviously more open-minded, with the coach and student manager being completely fine with Rikker's identity. Nonetheless, there are a lot of the players who are less than comfortable with the idea that Rikker is gay and keep making snide remarks and getting on his case about it.
Graham escaped the beating, but as a result wasn't forced to come out to his family and friends. He's riddled with guilt for running away, letting the boy he loved be beaten, and never even came to see him in the hospital. His true sexual preferences are tied up with so much guilt, fear and shame, but until Rikker walks back into his life, he's been able to avoid facing up to it, getting by with getting drunk and hooking up with women to hide his true desires. With Rikker there as a constant reminder of his tragic past and his true feelings, Graham gets to a point where he can't bottle it anymore. Once again, he can't keep himself away from Rikker, but he also isn't ready to have anything but a secret relationship. He isn't confident or brave enough to face the unpleasantness that would come with being openly gay and so keeps hurting the man he loves by refusing to be openly seen with him. I found Graham frustrating for a lot of the book, and didn't really like the way he would string Rikker along, but at the same time, I couldn't really blame him for his reluctance to crawl out of the closet, seeing how Rikker was treated by his old team and still faces shit for his choices.
Of all of the Ivy League books, this is the one that actually features a fair amount of hockey being played, what with both Rikker and Graham being key players on the Harkness varsity team. Hartley from The Year We Fell Down is the team captain, and one of the ones who's completely openly supportive of Rikker and furious every time there are slurs written on Rikker's locker or rival players shout insults. I mentioned in a previous review that I couldn't actually care less about the sport aspect of any of these New Adult romances that I'm discovering that I really enjoy. I therefore couldn't tell you if the hockey part is in any way accurate, and wouldn't have minded if there was less of it. Still, it seemed accurate enough, even though I could have lived without the reminder of how awful having a serious concussion is (hoping my head aches will be a thing of the past after the new glasses I get next week).
Once again, this is a pretty angsty romance, with a especially Graham having a lot of issues to work through both by himself and Rikker before they eventually get their happy ending. I enjoyed it, if I couldn't really directly relate to all the things in it, and I thought Graham took way too long to snap out of his self pity and treat his boyfriend right. I also felt sorry that Bella, who was a pretty great character was so hurt by Graham's lies, even if he never meant to be cruel. Her book is up next and I'm looking forward to reading more about her.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.