“Daddy loves you so much, and I’m going to make it all better. I promise.”
In a word: Read the thing. This was a heavy read. Holy shit. I knew going in that this book involved a very sick child and a lot of serious medical situations, but I had no idea that Robbie was only a newborn. Like, sick children in general is depressing, but just the image of a teeny tiny newborn having to go through all the pain Robbie has to go through is especially hard to read about. This book really has two distinct aspects to it: the first, and major, one is baby Robbie’s fight for survival and how his single father Julian deals with it all; the second is Julian’s romantic relationship with insurance coordinator Simon. Although Julian and Simon’s relationship is important in the grand scheme of things, and also involves Simon’s journey in coming out of the closet for the first time ever, Robbie’s care and illness definitely comes across as the more involved part of the story. The stakes certainly seem higher for it, anyway. The romantic aspect of the story starts out very slowly. The story starts with Robbie’s traumatic birth and the focus mostly stays on Robbie and Julian for a while. There are some chapters from Simon’s point of view but they mostly focus on his strained relationship with his mother and his fears over coming out, because Julian and Simon don’t really cross paths at first. Once Julian and Simon really start connecting, though, their relationship becomes more prominent in the story and the two plotlines start meshing together. This book can be a bit of a heavy read, but pretty much all of that comes from Robbie’s medical issues and how Julian and his family deal with them. Simon has some drama on his end with his fear of coming out and the homophobia he deals with, and the threat to his job if it comes out that he’s dating a patient’s father, but the relationship itself actually is surprisingly without much conflict (there isn’t even a third-act breakup). This read was very emotional and suspenseful, but I really enjoyed it. Maybe don’t read it if you need a pick-me-up, but it’s still good. Julian and Simon are great, Robbie is sweet, and the ending didn’t ruin anything for me.
The Summary: (from Goodreads) Waiting for someone else’s child to die so yours can live is the worst kind of Hell
Celebrated Young Adult author Julian Holmes pits the heroic characters in his Black Heart series against all different kinds of monsters. But when a critical heart defect threatens his son’s life, he finds he has no champion. No amount of books, classes, or practice can prepare Julian for the fight to save his beautiful son’s life.
Suddenly there are hospitals, transplant lists, and the nightmare of insurance red tape to navigate. In the midst of his trouble, Julian meets Simon Phelps, the insurance coordinator for Robbie’s case. Simon lives so deep in the closet he might never find his way out, but he dreams of exactly what Julian has. Then one night, drunken need and desperation brings them together, and a new fight begins.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains homophobia, and a severely ill infant.
WHAT I LIKED:
- Julian & Simon: Julian Holmes is a best-selling YA author who is gay and single. Even with a loving and supportive network of family and friends, he’s still pretty lonely. A past failed relationship and his general social awkwardness has left him a bit gun-shy when it comes to dating, so he decided to try to solve his loneliness problem by achieving his dream of becoming a father. He had great expectations of what having a child of his own (via a surrogate with a donated egg) would be like, only to have everything turned upside down when his son is born with a heart so damaged that he won’t make it to his first birthday without a transplant. That’s how he initially meets Simon Phelps, who is the hospital’s insurance coordinator. Like Julian, Simon is also pretty lonely. Unlike Julian, he’s very deep in the closet and he can’t rely on the support of his friends and family should he decide to leave it. The only reason they meet is because of Robbie’s medical care, but they become close because they feel that they can trust each other. I liked both these guys, and I thought they were both very good for each other. I did think that the beginning of their romantic relationship felt a bit sudden to me, but it wasn’t a huge put-off. They’re both total sweethearts who both seem to have huge capacities for love (Julian is very close with his friends and family, and of course he’s totally devoted to Robbie; Simon volunteers with underprivileged youth and genuinely cares about them), and they’re both amazing together. I thought their sex scenes tended to interrupt the plot a bit, but their hurt/comfort scenes were amazing because I could feel how much they loved and cared for each other and it all felt completely genuine. I imagine that the strength of their relationship might be a bit unrealistic considering the circumstances, but it made for a good and emotional read.
- Simon’s Revolt: A big part of Simon’s character and his arc had to do with his relationship with his family. Particularly his mother. Simon’s mother is a real piece of work. She doesn’t seem too obviously cruel, and I’m sure she’s not trying to be a complete bitch (I hope), but her actions generally make Simon’s life miserable. The fact that Simon doesn’t like being around her, and that it seems like he’s the only one out her four children that actually seems to have a relationship with her, leads me to believe that her skills as a mother leave a lot to be desired. We know that one of the children, and Simon’s only sister, completely left the state to get away from their mother’s attitude and interference. Simon still seems to be stuck in her web, if the way he keeps doing what she wants is anything to go by. Most of Simon’s interactions with his mother over the course of the book have to do with how she’s constantly trying to marry him off to any single young woman from her church that she can get her hands on. Also there’s a sense that she doesn’t approve much of Simon’s current life, and that’s without knowing that he’s actually gay. Her behaviour is pretty gross. The lovely thing about this arc is how beautiful it is when Simon finally puts his foot down with her. Being with Julian (and Robbie) really opens Simon’s eyes to what he truly wants in life. What he truly wants is to be a family, and with Julian by his side he feels like he can finally stand up to his mother and come clean (also he was pretty much outed in a news article, because Julian is technically a minor celebrity). That conversation with his mother goes about as well as anyone expected, but it was still great to see him finally standing up for himself and telling her how it was. Four for you, Simon.
- Robbie: If you don’t like reading about babies in your romances, Robbie Holmes isn’t really gonna change anything for you. As a newborn, Robbie doesn’t actually do much. He’s a baby, they’re generally props in stories for the adult characters to react to. He has his scenes where he’s being adorable, but his main purpose is to be cared for and worried about. Robbie is a very ill baby. He was born with a heart defect that ultimately means that he will die without a heart transplant (hence the title). This boy goes through so much during the story, and he actually comes close to dying a few times. The thing I usually enjoyed about scenes with Robbie was just how sweet and tender they were. Julian and his family love Robbie, and the uncertainty about his survival makes every interaction with him all the more precious, and it shows in people’s actions.
- Julian’s Family: Julian’s family is awesome. Even without being compared to Simon’s (which is mostly a disaster) they’re great. Julian is adopted, and his parents’ only child, and his parents absolutely love him. Julian came out to his parents in his teens and they immediately accepted him wholeheartedly. They were very excited about the birth of their first (and possibly only) grandchild and were as devastated as Julian about how sick Robbie turned out. They’re both great sources of support and comfort for Julian during everything he has to go through. Even with all of Robbie’s issues neither of them backed down at any point. They both love Robbie just as much as Julian, and Julian is insanely lucky to have the parents he has because it’s possible he wouldn’t have held up as much as he had without them. Erin and Paul aren’t actually related to Julian but they are his closest friends. Erin is the woman who carried Robbie. Like Julian’s parents, they are also enamored with Robbie and provide a solid support system for Julian.
- Medical Drama: I’m not a doctor, nor am I particularly knowledgeable in specific medial matters, so I have no idea how accurate any of the medical diagnosis or procedures in the story are. I will say that, as a layperson, whatever was going on with Robbie certainly seemed serious enough to warrant all the emotional upheaval that all the characters go through. Robbie is a very sick baby, and that’s a very serious situation for anyone to deal with. This story is very heavy with the angst and I was very nearly brought to tears a few times while reading. It’s never any fun reading about a sick baby, but it does make for some very emotional moments. What I really enjoyed was how Julian interacted with his son, and how he didn’t let himself take any of it for granted. My heart regularly broke for Julian and his family over what they were going through, and for Robbie for what he was going through, and I think that’s really what makes this story so powerful. Their distress and their triumphs really come through in the writing, and it’s easy to get attached to these characters and feel for them in what they’re going through.
- Liam & Clay: Julian is a best-selling YA author so I’m not surprised that that made it into the narrative. The prologue itself seems to be a scene from one of Julian’s books (I’m sure it was meant to tie-into the themes of the main story in some way, but I couldn’t figure it out, and that was the only time it happened). Two of Julian’s main characters are Liam and Clay, two teenage characters who fight demons, or something (the books are paranormal). The weird thing about the mentions of these characters in the main story is that they seem to physically manifest for Julian. As in he talks to them (which isn’t totally weird with a character who’s a writer, I’ve seen that before) and he also sees them. This strikes me as a bit much, although I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a representation of Julian’s loneliness because I think he tends to see them less the closer he gets with Simon. Julian absolutely knows that Liam and Clay aren’t really there, but it’s still a bit weird that he’ll still be able to see them in the everyday world. I think this was just a legit device of some sort that just didn’t come across properly.
- Homophobia: The homophobic actions in this story weren’t violent in any way (like, physically), but every instance of it just angered me. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before (either in real life or in other books), but it’s still beyond annoying that this kind of thing is still happening in the present time. There’s Simon’s mother, of course, the Christian parent who believes that being gay is a sin and only wants her son to marry a good Christian girl who can pop out grandchildren. Simon’s mother is pretty much a stereotype, but she’s still hateful and cruel and I still hated her. The epilogue mentions that she eventually changed her tune a bit, but I really can’t imagine that Simon’s relationship with her will ever be completely transparent or healthy (like the relationship Julian has with his mother). Another thing that made me both sad and angry is all the homophobic bullshit surrounding Simon’s volunteering position with underprivileged kids. It’s never clearly defined exactly where Simon goes to volunteer, but it sounds a lot like a youth center. At some point in the story one of the other volunteers gets let go because the board in charge of the center and/or volunteer program finds out that he’s gay. Simon has been in the closet all this time, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s found out and ousted, which does eventually happen later. This is a very old and stereotypical plot device for this kind of situation, but I believe that this kind of bullshit absolutely still happens and definitely needs to stop. It’s unfair and it’s stupid and it shouldn’t be happening. One last thing that happens that made me rage, but isn’t necessarily linked to homophobia, is how one of Robbie’s doctors threatened to take Robbie off the transplant list when he found out about Simon and Julian’s relationship. Now, I’m not entirely sure if this is completely down to homophobia (although it probably does on some level because it seems like it ruins Simon’s friendly relationship with this doctor) because it is technically unethical and all sorts of problematic. But I really can’t believe that this doctor would consider killing this baby (because without a heart Robbie will definitely die) as a first option to dealing with a potential breach of ethics (a breach, mind you, that he can’t actually verify). He apparently gets an earful from another doctor later on, so who knows what’s all going on with that particular instance.
[A Heart for Robbie was published July 11, 2014, by Dreamspinner Press; it is available both in print and as an ebook]