Book Review

Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox

I originally grabbed this book because there aren’t enough romances that deal with art thievery and apparently that’s a reading interest I didn’t know I had. I like mysteries, but I don’t like gore, entrails, and violence, so art theft plots are one way to satisfy my curiosity about who did the crime without running headlong into scenes involving intestines, torture, and blood loss. Ultimately, the art theft in this story is secondary to the romance, but I’m glad the concept lured me into reading this book because it was most enjoyable.

Vaughn is the assistant in a Toronto gallery that has a bit of a theft problem. Pieces have already gone missing and when he comes into work, another has been stolen. Because of the repeat crimes, the case is immediately flagged as suspicious by both the police, and by the gallery’s insurance firm. Jonah is an investigator for that insurance firm, so he and his boss pay a visit to the gallery the day of the theft, partly to follow their procedure and partly to mollify the very wealthy and somewhat mercurial owners and managers of the gallery. Jonah notices Vaughn right away and is pretty sure he’s gay, but Vaughn shows no interest in him – even though he is interested.

The real plot in this story is the differences between Jonah and Vaughn, and how their attraction to one another allows them to change, to reveal things about themselves, and to figure out a way to reach a sort of balance or equilibrium when so many aspects of themselves stand in the way of their getting along. There are significant class differences, for example: Vaughn comes from a very wealthy family, while Jonah was abandoned by his mother as a child and raised in a series of foster homes.

Both men carry around a lot of emotional and sexual baggage, too. Jonah craves sex, sometimes hooking up with different men three or four times in a night in clubs, often in full view of everyone in the place. He’ll have spontaneous threesomes in the men’s room or in the hallway outside the lavatory. He uses anonymous hookups as a way to soothe himself, and as a way to process emotions he isn’t comfortable with. He desires urgent and sometimes violent or brutal sex when he’s been forced into a position wherein he has to acknowledge or deal with the pain of his past, and while he’s proud of how he’s become an adult – a mostly-functional one -without much guidance, he gets off on being watched. There is a connection between Jonah’s feelings of self loathing, and the way being watched and judged by others for having sex in public in front of hundreds of men makes him feel. That connection isn’t explored deeply, though, as it’s one of many things Jonah is processing. The narration makes it clear that while other characters view Jonah’s behavior as tawdry and gross (one of Vaughn’s friends calls Jonah a slut among other things) Vaughn doesn’t look down on Jonah for his actions so much as he remains baffled by them.

(As for me, I understood Jonah’s desire for anonymous and frequent sex, though there’s one moment wherein he’s so bothered by his attraction to Vaughn that he plans to “jerk a quick one out in the washroom” at his office, to which I commented, “Ok, dude. Ew.”)

Vaughn isn’t in a relationship not because he doesn’t want to be with anyone, but because he doesn’t like sex and knows that boyfriends generally do like sex, and will want to have some on a fairly regular basis. Vaughn realizes during the course of the story that he’s asexual, a concept and terminology with which he hadn’t been familiar. That realization establishes the emotional core of his character.

Vaughn doesn’t find sex interesting or enjoyable, but he craves intimacy. The problem is, for most of the people he’s met, intimacy means sex, and the two aren’t divisible. Vaughn craves only one of those two things, but hasn’t found a person willing to explore emotional connection without involving sex:

He hadn’t known what he was doing wrong, and he’d been – and he remained – tired. Tired that sex was the normal thing to do. Tired of pretending this was something he really wanted….

He couldn’t do it. Not when it made him feel that lonely and upset, and when he rationally and objectively didn’t like it. It wasn’t soul-suckingly awful, but it also wasn’t fun….

And so he had taken sex off the list of things he did. For the most part, it had been great. He went clubbing without expecting to get laid, just looking to spend time with friends, dance, drink, banter, and then go home and sleep undisturbed.

So while art theft brings them together, the conflict between Jonah and Vaughn is that Jonah craves sex in mass quantities while Vaughn isn’t interested in sex at all. Neither man can give the other what they desire, but they both desire one another.

Vaughn has to both come to terms with his asexuality and explain it to Jonah:

“You said sex for you was like chocolate,” he said eventually.

“Yeah.”

“You prefer dark, but you have milk because it’s still chocolate.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t like chocolate.” His eyes were locked on Jonah’s. “I can see why people like it.” He grimaced. “Well, sort of. I see that it’s sweet and melts and is pleasurable. But I don’t understand why that’s such a great experience. It’s just okay. I’d rather,” his mouth twitched, “I’d rather have cake.”

Now, I do not think I am qualified to evaluate whether Vaughn’s portrayal might be construed as harmful to someone who is asexual or exploring asexuality. I don’t believe it is, but I also recognize the significant limitations of my perspective. I do know that this may be the first time I’ve read a romance character who was explicitly asexual, and a story wherein asexuality was one of the issues between the characters. Vaughn’s asexuality is more than a mere plot device. It serves more as a form of conflict which both characters have to deal with. Instead of one character realizing he’s gay because he likes men, in this story, one character realizes that despite the expectation that men, especially gay men, should want sex all the time, he doesn’t, and that’s also normal:

“It’s like realizing I’m gay again. Only even better because it’s somewhat more accurate. I have a clear idea of what I am….”

There were other people like him out there, other people who’d found meaning in the relative absence of their desires.

Vaughn’s realization and research allow him to feel much more confident about what he wants in a relationship, and what he wants with Jonah:

…now that he could shape and hold out his reality in his hand, he could explain to [Jonah] what his limits were and why.

For Jonah, this is not good news. He’d planned to hook up and move on, to enjoy his attraction to Vaughn long enough to bang and then he’d bang someone else later, or possibly several someones.

“Sex isn’t everything and that’s ok.”

It wasn’t like Jonah hadn’t thought that before, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard someone say it with such sincerity and calm. Such peace.

Especially when Jonah didn’t think he could deal with life without sex there to send him flying. What else was there to ease the bad parts? 

Vaughn is as accepting of Jonah as he is of himself, which was lovely to read about. Vaughn’s fear is that his lack of interest in sex won’t ever be enough for someone to love him, especially someone like Jonah, for whom sex is a necessity like breathing. Vaughn isn’t jealous that Jonah hooks up with people, sometimes multiple people per day or per evening. His pain rests in the worry that as much as he likes and cares for Jonah, Jonah won’t be able to care for him in the same way without sex to connect them.

The story is really about intimacy – which I am always here for. I love explorations of intimate connection that don’t rest solely on sexual interaction. Jonah has to learn how to navigate a relationship with Vaughn, a man he is deeply drawn to, which doesn’t involve sex at all. Vaughn has to learn how to maintain his boundaries and remain true to himself and his identity while also communicating to Jonah that he does like him, and in his own way desires him greatly.

Basically, sex is a language that Jonah is more than fluent in, and Vaughn doesn’t use it to communicate. Therefore, Jonah is at a loss:

So what if Vaughn wasn’t in the cards? Jonah had an app and an entire city full of gay men who were willing to have sex with him. He’d lost nothing by trying this.

Only, he didn’t want to leave.

So they have to find other ways to build intimacy between them, such as eating together, talking – especially about art, and playing video games. There’s a lot of building and restoration of friendships in this story, too. Jonah has allowed his friends from university to slip away from him, and isn’t in contact with any of his foster parents. He sees himself as perpetually alone, except when he’s hooking up with someone. Vaughn has friends, but they sometimes value things he doesn’t, and often mock him in ways that Jonah eventually finds enraging. Jonah’s protectiveness of Vaughn comes to equal Vaughn’s protectiveness of Jonah, and their mutual bafflement and confusion about being protected in the first place gave me a LOT of sniffy feels.

The resolution they come to as they figure out how to be together makes for a somewhat unconventional ending. It works for both of them, and they enter the terms of their relationship consensually and happily. (Spoilers for the ending below.)

Show Spoiler

Vaughn, who is pretty unbothered by Jonah’s hookups throughout the story, proposes an open relationship. Jonah is free to safely acquire sex partners as often and frequently as he wishes, and he can come home to Vaughn when he’s done.

At the end of the story, they are both still building their open relationship slowly. Jonah has been hooking up with men less and less frequently, as he enjoys the emotional connection he has with Vaughn that doesn’t involve sex. Vaughn states at one point that his interest in sex and in specific acts may increase the longer he can intimately connect with someone without sex being involved, so he may engage more in terms Jonah desires the longer they are together.

I liked that the ending did not require either of them to compromise who they were and what they wanted. I liked that Vaughn accepted Jonah without judgment, and Jonah, while confused by Vaughn’s disinterest in sex, learned to accept Vaughn as well. I also liked the way the story explored themes of found family and the intimacy of friendships and platonic connections.

The mystery of the art theft moves to the background as Vaughn and Jonah grow closer before reappearing at the end, and by that time isn’t nearly as compelling as the navigation of Jonah and Vaughn being together despite all the miscommunication and real and perceived boundaries between them. There is a tangible sweetness to this romance that I found charming and compulsively readable. I had a difficult time putting it down and was very excited to finish it.

There’s a lot going on, including some hints of future sequel characters, and not every part of the story was resolved as much as I would have liked. I would have liked to know more about how Jonah felt about the early stages of his relationship with Vaughn at the end of the story, and I would have liked to know that Jonah was also getting help in dealing with the emotional baggage and the hurts from his past that at one point in the novel try to crush him. I’d categorize this story has having a very optimistic Happy-For-Now ending, but it left me wanting a little more resolution, and a little more confidence that things really were going to be ok between them.

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Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox

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  1. 1
    Judy W says:
    +8

    I think “Faking It” by Jennifer Crusie is an art heist story. Just saying.

  2. 2
    Des Livres says:
    +14

    I’m asexual, and found this depiction very well done.

    If you want another go at a romance with an asexual in it, (plus many many other good things) check out How To Be A Normal Person by TJ Klune.

  3. 3
    cleo says:
    +7

    Thanks for the review – I’ve been eyeing this one.

    Another ace romance is LA Witt’s All the Wrong Places.

  4. 4
    lanie says:
    +8

    Also asexual, and I think the description makes sense as well. Though from a comment later on, I’m thinking Vaughn may fall under demisexual in the spectrum.

  5. 5
    Kareni says:
    +5

    I enjoyed this book also.

  6. 6
    cleo says:
    +6

    @cleo – correction – All the Wrong Places is technically by Ann Gallagher (LA Witt’s pen name for her romances without on page sex).

    I’m curious what asexual romance readers think of it. It’s between two ace men – one who’s just figuring it out and the other is out as asexual and biromantic and acts as a mentor. I thought the romance was a little lacking and there’s a dark moment that I thought was competely avoidable. But I enjoyed it.

  7. 7
    drewbird says:
    +5

    I have been on an m/m tear and I will definitely be checking this one out.

    As for art heists… I LOVE Suzanne Enoch’s Samantha Jellicoe series (first one is Flirting with Danger) about a female art thief who meets a billionaire while trying to rob him… they both get almost killed by a bomb and team up to find who is trying to murder one or both them. SUPER fun, and an actual romance series that stays with the same couple for multiple books. Lots of danger, not too much blood and gore though, and absolutely no entrails that I recall.

    Also, Sam only steals from private collections, never museums – she thinks in public for all to see is where art belongs. And after the first book she turns kinda white hat, using her thief skills to right wrongs and get lost stuff back, etc.

  8. 8
    CelineB says:
    +5

    His Christmas Gift by Sarah Mayberry is .99 at Amazon. I read it last night and enjoyed it. A connected book featuring the hero’s sister by Kat Latham, Three Nights Before Christmas, just went on sale for .99 as well.

  9. 9
    CelineB says:
    +7

    Sorry commented on the wrong post! This book sounds great though!

  10. 10
    Varian says:
    +11

    *sees the word “aseuxal” to describe one of the heroes*

    *sits up so fast his laptop almost falls off his lap*

    *reads the rest of the review*

    Holy shit that sounds exactly like me and what being ace is like.

    *instantly buys the book after he reads the spoiler*

  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:
    +8

    @Varian et al: I hope you’ll all let me know what you think after you’ve read it!

  12. 12
    Lora says:
    +5

    Someone to Steal was an art heist romance that came out a few years ago…sort of Thomas Crown Affair-y in that the plot got a bit byzantine, but it’s a fun read. I don’t remember who wrote it. Cara or Carrie something?

  13. 13
    Katie Lynn says:
    +5

    I completely agree with you about this book, it was really good. While there was some room for improvement the writing style was incredibly readable, it’s a nice length, and the characters were very interesting. And I believe there are two more books definitely planned in the series, though who they’ll feature hasn’t been announced that I have seen.

  14. 14
    cleo says:
    +5

    @Katie Lynn – the blurbs for the next 3 books are on the publisher’s site – http://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/universe/toronto-connections

  15. 15
    Des Livres says:
    +7

    I’ve read quite a few good asexual romances, and a few dreadful ones .This is the first romance ever, where I felt someone was just like me. It was amazing.

    I read All the wrong places by Anne Gallagher. I thought it was didactic and basic and lacking in warmth, love, connection, romance, intimacy. You know, all the things we read romance for. I’ve come across that a couple of times, well meaning people trying to write an asexual character and failing to get into their heads about love/romance/connection. As if the writers cannot imagine love/romance/intimacy without sex.

  16. 16
    Taffygrrl says:
    +4

    Libby Waterford’s “Love Unlocked” is a GREAT art heist romance!

  17. 17
    cleo says:
    +4

    @Des Livres – can you recommend a few of the ones you liked? I’ve only read a couple and none with very compelling romances.

    I’ve read All the Wrong Places and a free short story called An Alpha and His Mate. I haven’t read the Alex Beecroft asexual romance because the abuse seemed to intense for my taste.

  18. 18
    LZ says:
    +6

    Thanks for reviewing this book. Adding it to the shelf.

    Anna Richland has a sort-of-art heist romance called “The Second Lie.” (Mostly it’s about counterfeit wine and paintings. And the undead. And US immigration policy.) As a WOC, I love, love, love her ability to write about women from different backgrounds. She puts pretty realistic women in completely bananas, page-turning plots.

  19. 19
    Des Livres says:
    +7

    CLEO:

    The Alex beecroft book was very intense and brutal. It was too much for me. Having said that, the depiction of the asexual in it was excellent. She is asexual, and at the end of the book talks about the aven online asexual community which I found very helpful.

    Other than How to be a normal person (tj klune is another asexual) another good one is Coffee Cake by Michaela Grey. I’ve found most depictions of asexuals like the L A Witt one – lacking in perception and empathy. Do not do not do not read Ace by some man. It’s basically the opposite of Blank Spaces. Unless you want to do a book rant.

    Goodreads has quite a few asexual book lists. I found them through a google search (having known they existed). That same search included book lists of people with mental illness. Thanks guys.

  20. 20
    Cas says:
    +5

    The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz featured asexuality in a very lovely way, I thought. I stared blankly into space for several moments trying to find words to describe this story/novella, which I adored, but then finally I thought I’d just use the actual description: “Clara Gutierrez is a highly-skilled technician specializing in the popular ‘Raise’ AI companions. Her childhood in a migrant worker family has left her uncomfortable with lingering in any one place, so she sticks around just long enough to replenish her funds before she moves on, her only constant companion Joanie, a fierce, energetic Raise hummingbird.

    Sal is a fully autonomous robot, the creation of which was declared illegal ages earlier due to ethical concerns. She is older than the law, however, at best out of place in society and at worst hated. Her old master is long dead, but she continues to run the tea shop her master had owned, lost in memories of the past, slowly breaking down, and aiming to fulfill her master’s dream for the shop.

    When Clara stops by Sal’s shop for lunch, she doesn’t expect to find a real robot there, let alone one who might need her help. But as they begin to spend time together and learn more about each other, they both start to wrestle with the concept of moving on…”

  21. 21
    Jill Shultz says:
    +3

    Ooooh! Hailey Lind (that’s Juliet Blackwell writing with her sister) has a series of 4 art heist books that I adore. Annie Kincaid was taught to paint counterfeit Old Masters by her reprobate grandfather. She’s trying to go legit but keeps getting mixed up with art thieves. Meanwhile, grandpa is writing a memoir in which he identifies fakes in major museums and philosophizes about the value of art. The snippets of that book are so hysterical that I Want The Whole Thing! This is a really fun series. First book is Feint of Art.

    I’ll be traveling soon, and was thinking of re-reading this series because I’d like a fix of romance with art thievery, but unlike Sarah, wasn’t clever enough to consider using that as a search term.

    I am so thrilled to have all these suggestions. Thank you. The Bitchery rocks!

  22. 22
    cleo says:
    +3

    I just read this and I really enjoyed it. Thanks SB Sarah for putting it on my radar.

    @Des Livres – thanks for the recs and the confirmation about the Alex Beecroft.

  23. 23
    cleo says:
    +3

    @Des Livres – I did really enjoy Alex Beecroft’s Labyrinth, which has an asexual and an aromantic as two supporting characters (and an agender main character) – it’s set in ancient Crete, so they don’t use those terms.

  24. 24
    Nancy C says:
    +3

    On the art heist theme, there is an older series by Elizabeth Peters featuring Vicky Bliss, who works for the National Museum in Munich, and art thief Sir John Smyth (an alias, of course). Borrower of the Night is the first of six in the series–they’re mysteries, by the way, but with a slow burn romance between Vicky and John. Also fun: Herr Schmidt, Vicky’s boss, a little butterball of a man who relishes the prospect of Vicky getting together with John. Schmidt is hugely comic and lovely in all the ways.

    I just noticed that there is a newer entry in the series from 2008 (it began in 1973). Must. Read. Soonest!

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