Review: Gnarly by Mickie B. Ashling

gnarlyRating: 3.75 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


Thirty years ago, Ed was a college grad staring down the barrel of eight years of medical school to be followed by a grueling career in the American healthcare system. He and a group of friends decided to bid farewell to their youth by taking a grand tour of Europe. The no-holds-barred country- and bed-hopping started out great, but the longer it went on, the less the sexual escapades fulfilled Ed’s desires—until his bedmate brought another man into their play.

Instead of simply falling back into the swing of sex, however, Ed found himself entirely enthralled with this newcomer named Javi. For the last few weeks of his trip, Ed amicably parted with his group and joined Javi’s band of stoner surfers as they toured Basque looking for waves by day and sexual conquests by night. Except Ed and Javi only had eyes for each other. By the time things had ended and Ed returned to America, he was swallowed whole by his professional pursuits and one summer of free and intense loving was all but forgotten.

Fast forward to the present day and Ed is in his early fifties and a successful anesthesiologist. Yet ever since his wife died five years ago, he’s felt as though he’s been missing something. His twin, college-aged sons encourage him to try getting back in the saddle, but nothing is clicking. On a whim, Ed decides to head back to Basque country. Perhaps it’s a midlife crisis or a misguided attempt to recapture some of the vitality of his youth. Whatever the reason, he simply expects to spend a few weeks soaking up the sun and practicing his rudimentary Spanish. The last thing he expects to find is the father of his former lover working the same bar and desperate to have Ed visit Javi.

Eager to at least greet the man whose bed he’s basically lived out of for one summer during his youth, Ed agrees. Instead of the vibrant, devil-may-care surfer Ed had grown to care for, however, is the shell of a defeated man. Last year, Javi suffered a horrific accident that has stolen his one love, surfing, away from him. Startled by Javi’s rude behavior, Ed doubles down on a private commitment to bring the light back to Javi’s eyes.

As Ed works his way back into Javi’s life for the sake of friendship, he has to contend with the way his body is reacting to Javi’s proximity. After having spent three decades in a happy, monogamous marriage, Ed is a bit confused. Except he and Javi do have a rather delectable history. So when Ed starts noticing the hunky life guard as well, he realizes it might be time for a paradigm shift and that he might not be as straight as he thought he was.

Yet nothing is simple about helping a man regain his confidence in the wake of a life-altering accident. Nor is there anything easy about coming to terms not only with his newly acknowledged bisexuality, but also the fact that he just might be open to a polyamorous relationship.

This was such an interesting story. A short list of reasons why I was interested in this book: two of the three main characters are over the age of 50, polyamory, and interracial romance. While I’d say Ed and Javi share main character duties and Iker (their mutual lifeguard lover) and Javi’s father offer robust supporting roles, Ed is the main main character. Part of what makes him such an interesting choice is the fact that he’s already lived a full life. After returning from his summer with Javi, he goes on to finish med school and meets and falls in love with a woman whom he marries and with whom he has twin sons. Ed is a character who is rich with opportunity for mid-life crisis-ing and coming out as bisexual and coming to terms with polyamory. That said, I’ll explain at the end of this review how he winds up becoming a wet blanket in the last couple of chapters.

To be clear, while this story does have a strong polyamory element, the first third or so of the book is all about setting up Javi and Ed’s reunion. These two hit a lot of tropes all by themselves—Ed’s got the “coming out” thing, Javi’s got the “overcoming physical disfigurement” thing and a healthy dose of “bitterly unrequited love” (well, until Ed comes back and they try again), and together they cover the “lovers reunited” theme. With so much time dedicated to showcasing these two men getting reacquainted, I was almost wondering if I’d misread the blurb and this was not a polyamory piece.

The one thing that’s missing from the Javi/Ed story is pretty much their entire backstory. That’s not to say that what they got up to for that six weeks is in any way a mystery. Instead, there is just a few perfunctory explanations that felt more or less clinical. In a manner of speaking, I suppose that is successful in that it mimics how Ed probably viewed his time with Javi (at least up until they were reunited and old feelings got rekindled). Still, a lot of their banter and a lot of their emotions feel less genuine for not having any real in-depth, on-page time with them as stupid young college kids.

Eventually, Iker the lifeguard gets introduced as a mutual love interest for both Javi and Ed. As an unapologetic angst queen, I did enjoy how he served as a way to incite jealousy between Javi and Ed as they dance around admitting they’re still attracted to each other. Iker’s a good 15 years or so younger than Ed and Javi and he’s got a back story. While his backstory is also just scrawled over the page, it works a bit better than Javi and Ed’s story because Iker’s telling of his history happens in real story time. That is, Iker is recounting it to Ed on-page whereas Ed and Javi’s is just a third person omniscient narrator filling in gaps. As a character, Iker is perfectly acceptable…yet as a third partner in a polyamorous relationship, I felt he got the short end of the stick.

While it is quite clear Iker is sexually attracted to both Ed and Javi and vice-versa, there are several times Ashling takes pains to have Iker say and/or think about how the bond Ed and Javi share is stronger than any bond he (Iker) could have with the others. And the disappointing thing is that Ed/Javi basically agree. The overall effect left me feeling like Iker was never really seen (nor saw himself) as an equal partner in this three-way romance. There is a sliver of change towards the end because Javi/Iker end up spending time together without Ed…but it felt like a bit too little too late to save Iker from being a sort of well-liked third wheel.

The whole polyamory thing wasn’t done poorly necessarily. It was a lot better than every other poly situation I can recall…yet it definitely left me feeling a bit sorry for Iker and the way he inadvertently gets portrayed as a third wheel.

My only other criticism is: Ed. While I was able to set aside they way he is sometimes comes off as a teenaged drama queen (Ashling tends to use hyperbolic descriptors like “shout” and “snarled” that make the characters sound mercurial and moody, more like angst-ridden teenagers saturated in hormones rather than grown men in their early fifties), it was at the end when he’s basically acting like a sugar daddy with potential commitment issues that had me rolling my eyes the last couple of chapters. Clearly, he is the one in the relationship who’s got the funds to pay for Javi’s treatment and help Iker realize his dream of owning a surfshop…but I was annoyed at how it came off sounding like white male privilege. You know, like it’s gotta be this rich white dude who comes to the rescue of his two helpless lovers. I can’t imagine that’s what Ashling intended, but that’s definitely the vibe I got during just the last few chapters.

But I digress. I’m sure most people aren’t as sensitive to that crap as I am and it didn’t ruin the book or entirely destroy Ed as a character. If you’re interested in reading a book about polyamory, this would be an okay place to start. While it’s unfortunate not all three lovers see themselves/their partners as equals, it is clear they all hold each other in high regard and even some genuine love between certain pairs (and in certain directions). Hell, that might be more like what true polyamory is like anyway. All in all, It’s a pretty fun read with a lot of angst that gets wrapped up pretty neatly, even if there’s a deus ex machina in the form of sugar daddy Ed.

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

camille sig

Comments

  1. Mickie B. Ashling says:

    Thank you for taking the time to review Gnarly. Very much appreciated.

    • I thought Gnarly was an interesting exploration of how a multi-way love story might unfold. The themes are clearly defined and the main romantic threads played out well on-page. There seems to be something for everyone! There were just a few things that felt incongruous, such as Ed and Javi bantering with the vernacular of men 30 years younger than they are…but I think you managed all the characters idiosyncrasies well and that helped make for a pretty compelling read. 

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