I first encountered this book when I noticed a conversation on Twitter about the main character, Mark. I don't even remember who was talking about it – it might have been CheekyReads or Smexybooks or both – but something in the conversation caught my attention, and when I read the description, I felt like I'd been waiting for this book and didn't know I had been. This is a character I couldn't wait to read about. A hero who looks like an alpha, but is terribly, wrenchingly shy? A quiet and honorable guy who looks like a giant, muscly alpha male but is really not?
Sweet fancy Mom Jeans, I wanted to read this book so badly I can't even tell you. Then I read it in mid-February and had to WAIT to review it because I knew the degree of squee might run up against the Not on Sale Yet-ness and piss people off.
So this book is on sale, now, and I really enjoyed it, and I hope you'll try it and let me know what you think because OH MY STARS ADORABLE HERO.
I will now attempt to control myself.
Mark Apolostolos is handsome and built, with a physique he spends a lot of time on. He's smart, he's clever, and he's afflicted with shyness to the point where he is unable to speak to people at times, especially handsome men whom he finds attractive. Mark has effectively isolated himself socially and professionally: he teaches courses online, he works at home, leaving only to walk his dog and go to the gym. He doesn't have any meaningful relationships with flesh and blood humans who are physically close to him, like, say, in the same house or the same room.
When Mark's brother asks him to move in to their home when his brother is deployed, it's a huge adjustment. Mark's sister in law is pregnant, and he's there to help her out. While she doesn't trigger any of the effects of his shyness, she's also not aware that Mark is gay, and has been closeted fiercely by his own shyness.
It's more than just shyness. It's total social paralysis in a lot of ways, with panic attacks and inability to speak.
When Mark goes with his sister in law to a dance class at the gym (seriously, how awesomely sweet is that, going to a dance class for his sister in law?) he sees the instructor, Seth, and is so blown away by his attraction he isn't sure what to do with himself. Seth notices Mark, too, and they have to untangle some very large and very small issues between them, from misunderstandings to Mark's shyness and closeted sexuality, to reach any kind of functional relationship.
Because I was immediately introduced to Mark's feelings – and his neuroses – I was sympathetic to him and involved in his problems. I had large amount of empathy for him from the first chapter, not only because he was a sympathetic character, but because I think most people (certainly me) know how it feels to be shy or intimidated by a social situation. I don't like crowds, or large spaces filled with people wherein I can't get to a door easily. That makes me seriously antsy – and that's minor compared to Mark's experiences. So my imagining feeling that way all the time made me want to see what Mark did to overcome his problems.
Mark's social anxiety was a large, overwhelming fear that most people have probably experienced in small doses. For Mark, it affected everything he did. Who he was, physically and emotionally, was a result of his social anxiety: he works out constantly to counter the anxiety with exhaustion, he lifts and pushes his body so he can feel as if he is in control of one aspect of himself, and he teaches online so he can control the level of spatial interaction he has with students and other people. By the time I fully understood Mark's character and the limitations he was working within, I was rooting for him, while dreading how hard it would be for him to adjust.
This is one scene I loved, where Mark and his sister in law, Claire, are in dance class and Mark is doing his best not to notice Seth:
Everyone was bouncing, first on one foot, then the other, and clapping their hands above their heads. Mark watched Claire's feet until he got the rhythm then looked up to see Seth smiling at him. It startled him into smiling back. Then Seth called for a turn and a hip roll and Mark started differentiating polynomials in his head.
The downside to that level of empathy is that it came at the expense of the other characters in the story. I knew a good amount about Mark, his sister in law and his brother, but they were members of Mark's family, and because they story is very much about Mark and his world, those who weren't in his immediate sphere were less fully developed. I wanted to know more about Seth, for example, and due to the construction of the narrative, that didn't happen.
For example, often shyness is mistaken for aloofness or coldness, and Mark's inability to speak in situations he finds intimidating means that he hasn't spoken up for himself in years. I wanted to see other characters' reactions more, especially Seth. The story's deep perspective from Mark means that I knew Mark extremely well, but it also meant that Seth's role was reduced. He wasn't an entirely cohesive character to me; he was a catalyst to Mark's decision to change and face his own anxieties and the limitations they caused.
Mark's decision to come out and be more assertive in his own self identification isn't necessarily abused by Seth, though he is part of the reason. Another character is the one who tells Mark to get off his backside take the risk of coming out – and the pain and motivation of that scene was so very, very powerful.
One thing I appreciated was the more accurate portrayal of coming out. I myself am not homosexual, but my understanding of “coming out” is that it doesn't happen one time and yay, you're here, queer and good orgasms commence. Coming out, as I understand it, happens repeatedly to different people in different situations. Sometimes it might be easy (“I'm gay.” Other person: “Duh.”) and sometimes it might mean telling someone that you have been lying to them for decades, and dealing with the fallout of the damage to that relationship.
Too often in my experience, m/m romance featuring a character who isn't “out” portrays a very shallow sketch of coming out, as if identifying someone and realizing that being attracted to them is greater than the need to stay in the closet is all there is to the process. Mark had to come out to himself publicly, instead of in his own thoughts, and then to various people in different situations, and no single instance was easy for him, in part because of his own anxiety and in part because coming out is often excruciatingly difficult. I had tremendous respect for the author's development of Mark's coming out, and how arduous, ongoing, and varied an experience it was. It was part of the larger experience of Mark battling his shyness in order to be happy.
I read this book in a few hours, staying up until 1am to finish because I had to see what happened, how it would end, if Mark would be able to say out loud what he wanted. I don't remember time passing while I read it. I was emotionally invested in this story within the first few pages, and would eagerly recommend this story to anyone who wanted to try a m/m romance, or anyone looking for new twist on a heroic type. I wish Seth had been better developed, and I wish more of his story would have been present somehow to balance out his role, but as I said, this novel is very much about Mark and his struggle, and his attraction and feelings for Seth are a catalyst to Mark learning to be who he is, despite anxieties he can't control. The experience of watching him learn and change is an amazing one. I am so glad I was on Twitter when I was, because otherwise, I would have missed out on an extraordinarily emotional and touching story.