“How freeing it would be, he thought, when he had no one to answer to save for himself, to just be who you were, to not have a choice in the matter, as he had believed he did.”
In a word: Read the thing. This one is more than just a romance story, though it is also that. This book actually has three protagonists: two teachers, Dane and Seth, and one of their students, Truman (this is not a teacher-student relationship book, that’s not where I’m going with this). The main romance happens between Dane and Seth, and that’s a good-sized part of the plot, but the bigger part of the story is about Dane and Truman learning to accept themselves as they are as gay men. It’s an interesting read because these are two very different people at two difference places in their lives, but they’re still going on the same journey. There are different reasons as to why this is difficult for both of them, but they do eventually get there in the end. Seth himself is already out and proud (and has been since his teens) and it’s mostly with his encouragement that Dane and Truman learn to come into their own. The story is an emotional roller coaster, starting with Truman’s introduction and the death of Dane’s wife, a happily ever after, and then a whole lot happening in between. I was pretty invested in all the emotional twists and turns and the writing was good enough that it all flowed well. I did think that the writing was a bit to flowery for my tastes in some parts, but overall it was a well-written story and I definitely recommend it.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warnings: This book contains phobic language, bullying, suicidal ideation, a suicide attempt, grieving over the death of a loved one, and mentions of underage sex.
The Couple: Dane Bernard is a high school English teacher. He’s been married to his wife for 20 years and they have two kids together. He’s also gay, and has never told a soul. Seth Wolcott is also a teacher and new in town fresh off a breakup. He’s burned out on romance and not looking for love, but then he catches sight of Dane in the school parking lot and that is that. Dane and Seth are two different people in two different places in their lives. Seth has been comfortably out since his teens, and Dane has been with exactly one person and that person was a woman he couldn’t feel attraction for. Dane is a big, masculine, guy’s guy and doesn’t fit the gay stereotypes the locals (and he himself) have, so it’s pretty easy for him to hide his sexuality from the world. Being able to hide so easily makes it seem like it made it harder to accept himself for who he was. Part of the story is about Dane and Seth getting together, but part of it is also about Dane learning to accept himself as a gay man, and that it’s okay to be this way. Now, Dane has been married to a woman for 20 years, and they’ve had a fairly normal sex life, but Dane is absolutely gay. He is not at all bisexual. He has never been sexually attracted to his wife, and honestly he probably wouldn’t have been with her at all if he had been able to come to terms with his sexuality earlier in his life. I do believe that he loved his wife very much, and still does, but he wasn’t attracted to her. He was determined to disguise himself as a straight man, and he succeeded. I don’t know if he ever would have come out if his wife hadn’t died, leaving him free to try to be himself. It’s this part of the storyline that’s the most interesting, and Dane one of the more interesting characters. Seth, while not a bad character, doesn’t really have any personal journeys to go through. He starts the story off by dealing with leaving his cheating fiancé and determined that he isn’t ready for a relationship, but that actually doesn’t come up much. Seth isn’t a bad character; it’s just that, compared to the other two mains, he’s not all that interesting. Even though he gets a fair amount of chapters in his point of view, and he’s part of the main couple, he doesn’t really come off as one of the main players in the bigger story.
The Student: Dane and Seth are both teachers, and the third main character is one of their students. 14-year-old Truman Reid is a freshman and starting high school off on the wrong foot, through no fault of his own. Truman is a bit of a walking gay stereotype, the effeminate kind. He’s always been that way, ever since he was a small child, and he’s always had a hard time of things because of it because the small town he lives in is apparently full of terrible people. He lives with his dog and single mother in the poor part of town, though that’s not the major reason why the other kids are so cruel to him. Truman is gay, and a bit gender-queer (? He’s pretty girly, at any rate). He never actually had to come out at any point because he was so obviously different that he was never able to hide it. That turns out to be a bit of a blessing and a curse depending on how you look at it (like from Dane’s perspective, for example). Truman suffers a lot because the people around him can’t accept him for who he is and he’s bullied pretty badly at school. Combine that with having his heart broken over summer vacation and having only one ally in the world (his mother) has him pretty low. His first appearance in the story is him being treated cruelly by his peers, and one key scene involving him is when he attempts suicide by jumping off the school roof. Though he does get his own chance at romance at the very end, his major storyline is learning to own who he is. I actually really liked his story, Truman knows that he can’t change who he is and the way he acts and, instead of trying to change himself, decides (with a bit of input from Seth) that if the other kids don’t like him then they can all go fuck off. I will admit that I thought that his change was a bit too perfect and maybe unrealistic, but I was still happy for him to finally find the courage to stand up and be himself and fuck what anyone else thought.
The Families: We hear next to nothing about Seth’s family, his parents, only that they seem to be very nice folks. Though the fact that they never show up or appear to have any contact with Seth makes me think that they’re dead. I dunno. I don’t think that was explained very well. We know for sure that Dane’s father is long dead, I don’t remember anything about his mother or if she was even mentioned. The biggest thing we get from Dane’s parents is that they weren’t accepting of his sexuality, if Dane’s behaviour is anything to go by. Aside from his parents, Dane also has a family of his own. His wife just died, but he also has two children, 16-year-old Clarissa and 12-year-old Joey. Dane is a newly single father and, a few months after his wife’s sudden death, is starting to get the hang of things (mostly). We really don’t get much interaction with the kids outside of daily minutia until Dane gathers the courage to come out to them. Joey is surprisingly okay with the news, he’s pretty easy going. Although I did think that his dialogue wasn’t really fitting of a 12-year-old, like you could tell this was an adult writing this. Clarissa is the one who gets more focus. She is very upset to learn that her father is gay and then proceeds to spend most of the rest of the book being completely hateful. Like, I understand that she’s only 16 and that she was still dealing with her mother’s death, but she was acting really shitty until her and Dane got to have a moment near the end of the story. If it wasn’t for Clarissa’s behaviour, though, the children wouldn’t have made much of an impact on the story. Truman’s entire family is his mother Patsy, who is an amazing mother and is generally awesome, and his dog Odd Thomas, who is certainly a dog. I really loved the relationship between Truman and his mother, they both just love unconditionally and it’s great. Patsy herself is pretty awesome. If you do the math you find out that she was a teenage mother and even though things are difficult, she works hard to provide the best life she can for her son and try to make sure he knows that he’s a good person just the way he is.
The Exes: All three main characters each have an ex. Dane’s is his wife of 20 years Katy. We don’t see much of them together because Katy dies suddenly at the beginning of the story. We get a few flashbacks that show us that the two of them were very close and generally cute couple-y, and we know that Dane loved her very much. The thing about them is that, while they’ve been together since high school and I feel like they really do love each other, Dane is hella gay and that puts a weird slant on things. Dane feels really guilty after Katy dies, about his identity and his feelings. And he, and I, wonder if she knew that he was gay. We’ll never know Katy’s feelings on the matter, but I thought it was really sad that Dane felt that he’d have to go through life completely trapped in the closet because I really don’t think that he would’ve left his wife and so he really couldn’t be his true self. Seth’s ex is Luke, and the main reason he left Chicago for a small town in Ohio. Luke was actually Seth’s fiancé, and they were to be married a bit before Christmas but the wedding was called off with a few weeks to spare when Seth came home early one day to find Luke fucking another man on their couch. Luke doesn’t show up in the story until near the end (third act breakup territory) and I’m glad we didn’t see a lot of him because he is a Grade A asshole. He shows up out of the blue one night, after driving seven hours, and just expects Seth to take him back. He’s narcissistic and manipulative and Seth is much better off without him. I don’t want to say the name of Truman’s ex, because it was such a surprise to me, but I think he had some of the same issues with him that Seth had with Luke. Truman’s ex is older than him and deep in the closet and only really used Truman for sex. That was a really sad part of Truman’s story for me because Truman was already having a shit time of things and then here comes this guy that seemed to really like him (for once), only for things to fall apart as soon as Truman mentioned feelings. Truman’s ex is really a horrible person, and I know he’s probably hurting in a way that I’ll never understand, but he still did some really shitty things. And when he shows up again it’s obvious that he hasn’t learned anything and would’ve continued treating Truman like shit and that boy deserves so much better. Also something that really squicked me out was the idea of Truman having sex with this boy because Truman is only 14 and the other boy was about 17. Three years isn’t that big an age gap (I think there’s a bigger gap between Dane and Seth), but it’s definitely a big gap when one of the people is only 14. The idea of 14-year-olds in general having sex makes me quite uncomfortable.
The Sex: This book really isn’t all that explicit where the sex is concerned. Dane and Seth have one on-screen scene, but it’s written pretty vaguely. Also a bit flowery, like the rest of the writing. I think their imaginings were more explicit than the actual deed. After the first time, they do continue to have sex, but we only know because we’re told after the fact. They only have the one actual scene. There is also a lot of frank talk about sex in the narration. Both Dane’s and Seth’s chapters have it, of course, but Truman’s chapters have it as well. Truman talking about having sex did make for an uncomfortable read since he’s only 14, but it’s there. He has had sex, and it is obviously mentioned, but he doesn’t have any explicit scenes.
The Writing: I thought the writing in this was a bit too flowery, but I liked it well enough. It was an okay read, if a bit much at times. The story itself was great. Romance and angst and a happy ending. I found Seth’s story a bit bland compared to Dane’s and Truman’s, but it wasn’t actually boring or anything. Dane and Truman’s storylines were pretty similar, in that they both had to learn to accept themselves, but they both played out in different ways. I thought that the way Truman’s story turned out was a bit too perfect, considering the past reactions of the other students, but I’ll get over that. I thought that the dialogue for some of the younger characters, especially Joey and Truman, was a bit too adult-like for kids their age and on the flip side that some of Dane’s dialogue sounded like that of someone younger than he was. I was also a bit uncomfortable with a 14-year-old having sex, especially with someone a few years older (even though we don’t get any explicit scenes of it). The epilogue was pretty great, and I was pretty satisfied with everyone’s happily ever after (except for one minor character, but I wasn’t too fussed about him).
[Big Love was published April 4, 2016, by Dreamspinner Press, it is availble both in print and as an ebook]