“As much as Justin could try to deny it, George had entered his soul when he was eighteen, and he’d never left.”
In a word: Read the thing. I did like the story and the characters, but I never really got into it in a big way. I still recommend it because it’s very emotional and I really did enjoy those parts. Justin and George were young and in love when Justin got disowned by his parents and then suddenly left town. They remained separated for seven years, until Justin returns for his father’s funeral. Once they’re together again the two of them realize that they’ve really never stopped loving each other while they were apart, and they don’t want to be separated again. The problem there is that Justin is a popular actor out in LA, and George has a life he can’t just uproot back in their small Pennsylvanian hometown. If they can’t figure out a way to make things work for them it looks like they’re doomed to be forever apart. The really emotional parts, where Justin and George are sad and mopey about being apart, were the parts I liked the best. Their struggle felt really real to me and all I wanted was for them to find a way to be together. A lot of the dialogue is pretty annoying in how expository and unnatural it is, but other than that I thought it was good and it really pulled at my heart-strings at times.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains homophobia, the death of a parent to illness, and mentions of rape.
The Couple: Justin Hawthorne is a famous movie star, living it up and working nonstop to the point of exhaustion in LA to keep himself in the spotlight. His life is going fairly well, until one day he gets a phone call from his hometown in Pennsylvania, back where he was normal, non-famous Justin Grove. Justin hasn’t been back home to Biglerville in seven years; not since his parents disowned him for being gay, and a savage attack had him running scared. But now his father his dying, and wants to see Justin one last time. Justin is torn over what to do, but he does end up going back to see his father (trying for some type of closure, if nothing else) and, of course, one of the first people he meets is the boy he left behind. George Miller has never left Biglerville. He works as a home nurse (or something to that effect), and was actually taking care of Justin’s father in the year before his death. It’s a bit awkward to be seeing each other again after seven years of no contact, but it soon becomes clear that they’re still as in love with each other now as they had been when they were 18. Their interactions in the first half of the story (when Justin is dealing with his father’s death, and when his reentry into George’s life is still meant to be temporary) are sometimes heartbreaking. They’re still so in love with each other, but it’s killing them that they can’t be together because their lives are firmly in two different parts of the country. Justin can’t just abandon his career and move back to town; especially not to a town where he doesn’t always feel welcome. George can’t just move away from all he’s ever known and leave his mother behind. These two men were cheated out of a chance at love when they were teenagers, and it’s starting to look like they’re still out of luck after all these years. A lot of their actions stem from the fact that they’re absolutely sure that they aren’t able to be together, and they’d both rather have this one week together than nothing at all. Justin’s father has just died, and Justin is having a hard time dealing with it all, but I think the more heart wrenching moments come from Justin and George struggling with the fact that they might never be able to be together, no matter how much they want it.
The Night He Left: Justin came out to his parents, got disowned, and left town all in the same night. On the surface it seems like his parents kicking him out was enough to make him leave, but we know going in that there’s something else that went on. Something happened that night that Justin has never talked about with anyone, and he doesn’t even think of it in his chapters, we the readers only find out about it when Justin finally explains to George what happened the night he left. Justin was originally going to stay with George’s family when his father kicked him out, so he had no real reason to completely skip town unless something else had happened. When I first read the summary I figured that Justin had either been beaten up or sexually assaulted on his last night in town, and that was the real reason he left. I actually turned out to be right (I don’t know if it’s because the story was that predictable, or my mind just automatically jumps to odd places). Apparently, Justin was all set to move in with George and his parents, but he had to go to work for the night and that’s where he was attacked and raped by Mark Bobb, the son of the town mayor and a former classmate of Justin’s. After everything, Mark threatened George and Justin left for California. I figure that’s a good enough reason as any to leave. Justin was barely nineteen and his world had just been pulled out from under him, so I don’t blame him at all for leaving. The whole thing certainly left an impression on him: he’s still terrified of Mark even seven years after the fact. The one issue I have with this whole plot is that nothing really comes of it after it comes out. Justin starts opening up about what happened, but we don’t see or hear anything from Mark ever again. I was waiting for even a mention of it in the epilogue, but nothing. I don’t think you can really have something like this in a story and then not resolve anything about it.
The Side Characters: George doesn’t seem to have any significant interactions with the people around him, so pretty much all of the side characters are related to Justin in some way. Ethan Houghton is Justin’s best friend-slash-personal assistant. They met when Justin first moved out to LA and they’ve been friends ever since. Ethan isn’t an actor, so his only connection to the world of movie stars is through Justin. I thought I was gonna be annoyed with Ethan at first, but I quickly came to like him (which is a good thing because he’s the biggest character after Justin and George). He’s a good friend to Justin, and the only person that Justin can really trust, and he does nothing in the story to abuse that trust. Justin has an agent/manager, named Roy, who doesn’t really show up much in the story, but he’s usually in contact with Justin in one way or another. Most of the time he comes off as driven by money as he constantly stuffs Justin’s schedule, but there are some parts that make it clear that he does care about Justin as a person. And, of course, we have Justin’s father (who probably has a name, I haven’t bothered to remember it, we’ll just say Mr. Grove). I didn’t like him. He makes for a pretty sympathetic figure in the story itself: we only see him for a short bit while he’s dying in a hospital bed from the effects of a stroke and a heart attack. But this is still the same man who kicked out his only child once that child came out, the same man who didn’t even call Justin when Justin’s mother died, the same man who never once contacted Justin at all since he kicked him out and didn’t once even try to reach out. He apparently became well-loved in town since Justin left, but the way he treated his son without once trying to fix things makes it easy for me to ignore that. Justin has a lot of complicated feelings about his father and what his death means in the grand scheme of things, and sorting through everything is a bit of a process for him. There is only one side character that’s associated directly with George: his mother, Shirley Miller. Shirley is your typical middle-aged, small-town housewife. She hasn’t seen Justin in seven years, but she immediately falls back into old patterns as soon as she sees him. I have no doubt that Shirley genuinely loves Justin (before Justin was attacked and left town, Shirley and her husband had already opened their home to him and he was going to live with them). There are a few other minor side characters that pop up here and there, but these ones are the main ones.
The Sex: There are three sex scenes in the book, all between Justin and George. The first one happens during the week Justin is staying with the Millers, and it’s both happy and sad. These are two men who are reconnecting after so many years apart and discovering that they have never stopped loving each other. They’re rediscovering each other, but they know that this is only temporary and that they’ll have to go their separate ways soon, again. There’s a sex scene after they’re together for good that’s a lot happier because there’s no longer the lingering threat of separation hanging over them. They have all the time in the world at that point. The sex scenes are all fairly standard, except for one that happens in and around Justin’s pool which I found a bit extra (that’s probably just a personal thing on my part, I felt the same way about the pool sex scene in Chris Scully’s Until September).
The Writing: So I liked the story, and I liked (most of) the characters, and I liked the emotions, but I wasn’t really a fan of the writing. Most of the story was written well, the more emotional parts especially (mostly Justin’s emotions in dealing with his father and his own Hollywood lifestyle, and his and George’s feelings about their impending separation). But there were times where it kinda fell a bit flat. One part I can definitely pick out is right after the first time Justin and George acknowledge that they’re still very much into each other. They’re interrupted during some intimate moments, and then there’s an immediate tonal shift where I was almost confused as to whether anything had happened between them at all. Also the bits surrounding Mark Bobb and his involvement in things was a bit wanting, definitely thought there should have been a bit more to it considering such a heavy topic. Then there were some parts of Justin’s Hollywood life that either bored me or just made me roll my eyes (sudden tabloid article putting Justin in more direct spotlight and spilling all his secrets? Natch). The part that grated on me the most, though, was the dialogue. A lot of the dialogue was fine, the majority of it was frustrating. A lot of it was awkward, stilted, and way too explanatory. Very little of it seemed natural, and it got on my nerves pretty quick. All in all, though, I really did like the story and Justin and George’s emotional journey to find each other again (even if they sounded like overhead narration a lot of the time).
[Can’t Live Without You was published September 12, 2016, by Dreamspinner Press; it is available both in print and as an ebook]