I usually don't gravitate toward books that sound like they are more about an issue than a character, but the description of this book grabbed my brain in a “You wanna read this now” kind of way.
Seth and Owen have been together for a few years, and the story opens as they're driving through a horrible snowstorm to visit Seth's family in Brunswick, Maryland. (Brunswick is a real place. It's on the border between Maryland and Virginia, southwest of Frederick. I have no idea if the area was accurately represented, or anything, but I thought it was neat that it was a real small town.) From the first page, I knew their relationship was not in a good place:
I stared out the window at the layer of thickening white that blanketed rooftops and front yards stuffed with nativities, plastic snowmen and giant candy canes. At least the inches of accumulation hid the Save Marriage signs that still dotted the landscape like unexploded grenades.
Seth campaigned for Question Six, the Maryland ballot referendum regarding marriage equality. He wants to marry Owen. Owen, a divorce attorney, isn't that excited about the idea of gay marriage, and has some very complicated feelings about marriage equality being championed at the exclusion of other issues, such as discrimination. Owen doesn't want to marry Seth – or anyone.
Seth's family expects that now that marriage is a possibility, they're going to get hitched. But when Owen and Seth arrive at Seth's parents' home, and everyone sees the precarious state their relationship is in due to that question of marriage, the holiday becomes a lot less merry.
Seth narrates the story, and he is charming. He has moments of real humor, and I smiled a lot reading his narration. Seth, because we're in his head the entire time, is a breathing, hurting character who is easy to empathize with. He isn't comprised of hurt and relationship agony, either. There are moments that he smiles and laughs, even though he's worried about his relationship, and hurting constantly that Owen and he might be breaking up. Owen was less developed, but part of the enigma about Owen stemmed from the deep point of view. Seth doesn't understand really why Owen doesn't want to marry him, and is deeply afraid that the political reasons Owen outlines aren't the real reasons.
Aside from Seth, Owen, and Seth's parents, one flaw in the story was that many ancillary characters occupied roles. They were not people so much as they were Roles in the Drama. There was The Religious Bigot, The Prejudiced Family Member, The Provocative Rude and Pushy Gay Guy, and The Very Supportive and Loving Sibling. They had specific jobs to fulfill in the antagonism of the characters, and did little else aside from those jobs. They didn't change, or develop.
The Roles in the Drama were mixed with a set of interesting people/roles, such as the cousin who was struggling with coming out and played up his heterosexuality by painting giant boobs on gingerbread cookies. His investment in Seth and Owen's relationship is heartbreaking
The most interesting dynamic was the one that I struggled to believe in at first, but found to be pretty amusing at the end. Seth's mom and dad won't allow Owen and Seth to share a room because they are not married. They'd shared a room when visiting in the past, but now that gay marriage is legal in Maryland, they're sleeping apart in his parents' house. They aren't married and they COULD be, as opposed to not married and not allowed to be.
For you, he can stay—on the couch. He’s had plenty of milk for free already, but he won’t tap it fresh from the cow under my roof.”
I forced a shaky smile. “We live together, Mom. If you don’t think he won’t grab me and put me against the wall as soon as we get back to Cumberland–”
“Don’t push me, young man.” She wagged a firm finger. “We gave you both a lot of latitude because Owen couldn’t legally marry you, but that won’t be the case come January. No more strutting, proud as peacocks that you’re sleeping together without benefit of marriage. I won’t have it. You and he both will keep your hands respectful or else.”
Tossing my head back, I laughed—hard enough to earn another slap. “Does Owen know about this?” I sniggered, finally sitting up on the bed. At least I wasn’t drowning in self-pity anymore. “He touches me all the time, Mom. He doesn’t notice he’s doing it.”
Mom’s lips thinned to a stubborn line. “If Owen wants to grope my son, he’ll put a ring on your finger first.”
I thought initially that Seth's mother's insistence that Owen sleep on the couch was somewhat ludicrous, and was preparing myself for his mom to be another character playing a Role in the Drama, but she turned out to be lovely. She has very firm ideas about marriage, but she loves her son and is accepting of his sexuality, his choice in Owen, and of his life. She's very loving – but so firm. There's one scene where Seth's mom explains some of the things she's learned from the internet that made me chortle:
Mom laughed. “Don’t worry. Your father and I will convince Owen of the error of his ways.” She lowered her brows in mock consternation. “Eddie might not have any cause to know the difference between a cougar and a daddy, but I do. Been reading on it. Pictures too and I don’t mind telling you, I didn’t know some of that stuff was possible. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Mom!” My spine shot straight.
“Never mind. Forget I asked.” She lifted a palm. “What my children do in the bedroom is none of my business, but if that man’s doing those things to my son, he’ll buy a ring.” Her eyes widened. “For your finger, I mean.”
Seth's mother's acceptance and firmness was only inconsistent when it came to Bigot Sister (not to be confused with Loving Sister). Why Seth's mom didn't put her foot down more firmly against her bigot daughter and her bigot husband, I do not know. She whaps Seth with a wooden spoon for swearing, but her daughter is cruel and actively humiliates him in front of family and the entire internet and gets off rather lightly. I wanted Seth's mom to be as firm against her daughter's ignorant hatred as she was supportive and loving of Seth.
For a short novella, there's a lot of family drama and an exploration of what marriage means when it was denied and is suddenly allowed. Owen objects to the amount of money spent on the gay marriage question, saying there are other civil rights that are being ignored, like workplace discrimination protection for GLBT people, in favor of marriage rights. The cost of fighting or promoting the legislation is in the millions – depending on the state hosting the battle that election – and it doesn't provide much in Owen's opinion beyond a piece of paper that makes breaking up more difficult.
In Owen's perspective, which we don't see in full until closer to the end, the marriage certificate is irrelevant, an external stamp of approval that verifies their relationship. It's a marker that allows everyone else to define the permanence of their relationship, and it's more important to Owen to define their relationship from within it. When Owen says he loves Seth, he means it, and he wants to believe that his commitment in his words and his actions and his demonstrated affection is more important, and worth more than the license and certificate that affirm it for everyone else.
Seth (clearly) was raised in a pretty strict household with firm views on marriage and what it means, and the idea of being married formally and having that affirmation means a great deal to him. He struggles with a lot of insecurity because Owen is older, more wealthy (and his boss), and worries that Owen will leave him. Part of his fixation on marriage is that Owen would agree to the binding commitment of marriage and thus promise outwardly not to leave. Owen's own protestations that he loves Seth and isn't planning to leave are not as meaningful for Seth as that marriage certificate.
Owen isn't angry or petulant. He's a bit of a mystery since we don't get his perspective, but in just about every scene he is gentle, respectful, and he clearly loves Seth. He's also very patient and understands Seth's insecurities. I could empathize with both their positions and understood how they both felt – and how miserable they were to have to sleep apart while visiting Seth's parents.
Beneath the assortment of Role in the Drama characters, there are some moments of hilarity (Seth's grandmother and her snowmen in particular) and some moments of cliched political position appearing in the form of a few lines of dialogue. But beneath those rough spots is a real conflict: when two people who have been denied the option of marriage suddenly have the opportunity, what does marriage mean for them? Is it conforming to heteronormative standards and allowing other people to define what is and is not a real relationship, as Owen thinks? Is it a more lasting commitment when the words change from 'boyfriend' to 'husband' and everyone has to acknowledge that change, as Seth thinks?
Within that conflict is a real danger to their relationship: Seth's hurt stems from Owen's unwillingness to get married, and Seth fears that it's because Owen wants an exit strategy and doesn't love him enough to marry him. Seth never articulates this, but if marriage is so much less meaningful to Owen, then why not just marry Seth because it's very meaningful to him: “This will make me happy; why can't you see that?” Vice versa, for Owen, the idea of marriage makes him uncomfortable and unsure: “This will make me unhappy; why can't you see that?” Who wins in that situation?
Placing the trouble in their relationship in Seth's parents' home highlights the issue because Owen isn't allowed to stay in Seth's bedroom any longer. Marriage has created a boundary that's physically and emotionally between them.
Depending on whose argument you empathize with more, the ending might be unsatisfying; I found it to be a let down, because I didn't see how or when the change of opinion and change of heart came to be. Someone has to change their mind or bend, and when that person does, I had a difficult time figuring out how and why it happened. Someone changes his mind, but why? What was the impetus that created the change? I really wasn't sure. I know there was some symbolism involved in the ending, but I wasn't sure why that character employed it, either.
Also, at $3.99, this is a really expensive novella. I'm not factoring the price into the grade, because the price can change, but I do hesitate to recommend it because I don't think the content length or quality justifies this price. It's a very thoughtful novella and I enjoyed reading it, but it's not like it blew the top of my head off and I went screaming around the living room with joy when I was done.
That said, the question of “what happens when marriage is an option when it hadn't been before” became a conflict between Seth and Owen that was layered and thought provoking. Aside from the ancillary surrounding characters who were provocative and didn't change much, I enjoyed reading the story, I liked Seth's narration, and I liked most of his family and how much he loved them. The ending was abrupt and insufficiently explained and supported, but the journey to getting there was a charming and enjoyable evening of reading.