“In other areas of their lives, they did most everything together, and the thought of doing anything major without Sammy hurt, and raising a child, even for a short period of time, was definitely major.”
In a word: Maybe read the thing? I can’t really figure out how I feel about this one. On the one hand, it’s a bittersweet story about a man coming to terms with the possibility that he may have to raise his baby niece, which I was expecting when I started reading. On the other hand, it’s a lot darker than I was expecting. For some reason, I found it really hard to get into the story. I couldn’t connect to any of the characters, or any of the emotions. I liked the dynamic between Josh and Nicky (his sister), but Josh’s relationship with his partner Sammy fell a bit flat for me. But I mostly chalked that up to never really warming up to Sammy. I also felt that the story was a bit too short to fully explore all the events that were happening. Though all the plot threads are technically tied up by the end, it still felt a bit incomplete and that we didn’t really get any concrete answers. Also I felt like the author was trying to shove in a more romantic plot into a story that shouldn’t have been focusing on the romance to begin with. It’s a slightly darker read than I was anticipating, though anything not having to do with the darker elements felt like uninteresting filler. It’s not a bad story, by any means, I just mostly found the execution lacking.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains implied postpartum depression, implied attempted infanticide, and a character suffering a mental breakdown.
The Couple: Josh and Sammy are a gay couple in their 40s (I’m pretty sure) and have been together for 15 years. They’re a well-established couple and they seem to be leading a fairly perfect life. One important thing to note about their relationship, that is pertinent to the main plot of the story, is that Sammy has expressed that he has no desire to ever have children. Josh would like to have children, but he knows that Sammy doesn’t want any and he respects that. The story isn’t a romance, so it doesn’t really focus on their romantic relationship (at first). The two of them are happy together. There are two major things I had problems with concerning them. One was that I didn’t really buy into the romance. Sure the two of them have been together for years and by now things have cooled down a bit, but I didn’t really get invested in their relationship. At least, not enough to care more about it than the actual baby plot. It wasn’t balanced all that well, is what I think the problem is. The story is told through Josh’s third person point of view and it seems like Josh can’t focus on both his sister and his relationship at the same time. We don’t actually see all that much of Sammy, as he and Josh aren’t often together in major scenes. There doesn’t seem to be much to their relationship, aside from comfortable blandness, until Sammy suddenly decides that he wants to have sex with Josh for the first time in a while and then we get an entirely unnecessary sex scene. The other thing I had a problem with was Sammy’s reasoning concerning whether or not he and Josh would take in baby Vivian. It’s well established that Sammy never wanted to have children, and he even told Josh that he didn’t want much to do with the baby. But one remark from Josh’s sister-in-law about her and her husband being a better choice for raising a baby (which, aside from the fact that the sister-in-law is hateful as all fuck, is objectively true) has Sammy completely changing his mind and saying that he and Josh will take the baby. Because Sammy is apparently very petty.
The Family: Aside from some brief interactions with friends of Josh and Sammy’s, and Vivian’s pediatrician, the side characters are all members of Josh’s family. There’s, of course, his younger sister Nicky. Nicky is nearly 41 years old and a mother for the first time; a single mother, at that. It’s very heavily implied that she’s had mental health issues in the past, which makes her family members worried about how she’ll deal with pregnancy and single motherhood (though it turns out that they were right to worry). Nicky eventually gives birth to a daughter, Vivian, who is more of a prop in the plot instead of an actual character. Josh and Nicky also have a brother, Tim, who is married to Maria, who Josh refers to as his bitch-in-law (and she is a hateful person). Tim and Maria were initially against Nicky continuing the pregnancy while Josh was more on the fence about things. Josh’s mother is also a character, but she doesn’t do much.
The Incident: When I first read the summary I assumed that Josh would get custody of Vivian because her mother died in childbirth or something. That’s fairly depressing, but not as depressing (or as dark) as a nearly dead infant and a woman having a complete mental breakdown. Nicky is a first-time single mother (the baby’s father split when Nicky told him she was pregnant) at the age of 41 and it was a precarious situation right from the start. It’s implied that Nicky has mental health issues, which casts a layer of apprehension over the whole situation. No one says outright whether or not she’s been diagnosed with anything, but Josh and his mother talk about Nicky being on medication and about a nervous breakdown (of some sort) that she’d had years before. Their mother making it a point to move in with Nicky for a few weeks after the baby is born seems to suggest that no one in the family is all that confident about Nicky’s ability to deal. I’d say that they’re overreacting except that they all turn out to be right. Vivian is only a few weeks old when Nicky appears to try to kill her with an overdose of Tylenol. I don’t know enough about PPD or most mental illnesses in general to say whether or not the whole scene that happens is accurately written, but it is definitely chilling. As read by a layperson it’s suitably dramatic (aside from the bullshittery of not immediately calling an ambulance for an infant that has briefly stopped breathing, what the fuck, Josh?) and probably one of the best scenes in the book if you turn your brain off to avoid all the questions that arise when you think on the situation for too long.
The Sex: The way this story was going, and the fact that it wasn’t really a romance, made me think that there weren’t going to be any sex scenes (or at least none that weren’t fade-to-black). I was okay with that; I wasn’t a fan of the writing or the couple enough to want to read about them fucking. But, fairly close to the end of the story, there is a sex scene. I didn’t want it, but I got it. I didn’t think this was a well-done sex scene, both in the way it was written and where it was in the story. Added to that is that there wasn’t really a lead up to it. Josh and Sammy have been together long enough that they aren’t fucking like bunnies at every opportunity (anymore) and their relationship seems practically sexless these days. And then in the middle of all this drama going on with Nicky and the baby they suddenly decide that they’re hot for each other again? I didn’t get it. I think we would’ve been better off without the explicit scene. And don’t even get me started on the writing (I think at one point Sammy’s arsehole was compared to a flower opening its petals, or something, and then I had to ask myself what the fuck I’d just read).
The Writing: I feel like the plot had promise but the execution was faulty. I had a hard time with the writing in this one because I just couldn’t connect with anything. There was also a lack of balance with the plot elements, which I’m putting down to the length (I think it’s around 16k words, or so). The focus of the plot should’ve been. I felt, on the dilemma of Sammy never wanting children and how that would impact Josh’s decision to care for Vivian. That’s not what we ended up with. In fact, Sammy’s feelings about Vivian rarely came up, and any decision-making process he went through happened off screen because the story is told through Josh’s third person point of view and Sammy doesn’t share his struggle much with him. We also got a lot less of Nicky than we should have, considering the focus that was put on her character initially. And don’t even get me started on the mess of an unnecessary sex scene we got that came out of nowhere. This story isn’t completely horrible, but I can’t really bring myself to recommend it. Especially not as Christmas fluff.
[A Present in Swaddling Clothes was published December 1, 2011, by Dreamspinner Press, it is available only as an ebook]