The first rule of ecology is that small shifts beget big change. Everything is connected.
Nathan Kohn is a environmental sciences professor at a small Catholic college in Chicago. Being both Jewish and gay, it is sort of an odd match for him, but he enjoys his job even while finding himself a little lonely. When Nathan meets the gorgeous student Isaac Wolf, he is instantly taken with the young man. Isaac is smart, handsome, and totally appealing, although completely off limits. When Isaac indicates that he is attracted to Nathan as well, Nathan is clear that nothing can happen between them while they are teacher and student.
Although Nathan continues to feel attracted to Isaac, he manages to maintain his distance through the first semester. However, one night a long-time friend takes Nathan to a gay club and pays for him to spend some time with one of the back room boys. This is totally out of character for Nathan, but he has been alone for quite some time following a bad breakup with a cheating boyfriend and his friend is hoping to provide a little fun. Nathan is totally shocked, however, when he finds himself face to face with Isaac. Both men are surprised and embarrassed to see one another under these circumstances. When Isaac moves forward with the encounter anyway, Nathan knows it is a bad idea, but lust, loneliness, and his feelings for Isaac take over and the guys engage in a quick back room blow job.
After that Nathan is committed to no sex or dating until after Isaac graduates in the spring. The men continue to become close, developing a bond between them while not crossing any relationship lines. Isaac even joins Nathan’s family for the Passover meal (his mother has a tradition of including Nathan’s Jewish students for the holiday). By the time Isaac finally graduates, the men are just boiling over with desire for one another and quickly start up both a sexual and romantic relationship as soon as graduation is over.
While the men are thrilled to finally be together, it is not all easy. Nathan’s department chair has it in for him, and when he encounters Nathan and Isaac obviously together, he is eager to report a potential ethics violation to the college president. Nathan also feels a bit of insecurity about being so much older than Isaac and he wonders what the gorgeous younger man sees in him. But the hardest part for both of them is Isaac’s past. Isaac worked at the club to support himself and manage his school loans after his parents kicked him out for being gay. He quits as soon as school ends, but with so many past customers around, his former job is never far behind him. Men are constantly hitting on him and making suggestive comments, and although Isaac handles it well, it is hard to always be reminded of his past. And even though Nathan understands why Isaac took the job (and is in fact a bit titillated by it), he still finds the constant comments and leering by other men is hard to take. But if things are going to work between them, Nathan must learn to handle Isaac’s past if they are going to have a future together.
I really enjoyed Learning from Isaac and especially the dynamic between the two men. I thought the age difference and their relationship to one another provided for some interesting issues. Although Isaac is a lot younger than Nathan, he is a very mature student. He is several years older than most of the others as he took some time off in the middle of his education. After his parents kicked him out, Isaac had to grow up quickly, supporting himself and living on his own. So he is a pretty mature guy, and I never felt like he was out of his league with Nathan or that Nathan was predatory in return. Obviously, the early back room blow job shouldn’t have happened, but it totally makes sense to me why it did. And I appreciated that after that the guys are both mature enough to back off and be patient, even though graduation is still months away.
I think both the characters were quite likable and felt very real. Despite his somewhat dire circumstances, Isaac never acts like a victim. He has made a choice about the best way to handle his difficult situation, and although he doesn’t particularly love his job, he accepts it as the price to pay for finishing school without crushing loans. He is smart and motivated and deals matter of factly with all the creepy guys who refuse to leave him alone. While he knows early on that Nathan is what he wants, he is also willing to be patient to have him.
Since the story is told from Nathan’s POV, we get to learn a lot more about him. Bentham provides a lot of detail about Nathan’s work and research without going overboard on the technical. I also liked meeting his family and friends and getting a sense of how they have shaped his personality.
One thing I personally enjoyed a lot is that both characters are Jewish. This is something fairly uncommon in romance novels (in fact I am not sure I have ever encountered it) and something that I really appreciated being Jewish myself. Although neither man is particularly religious, nor does the book have any kind of spiritual bent, I think it added a really nice dimension to their relationship and creates an early connection between them.
Although I understand the issue of Isaac’s past coming between the men, I think this could have been presented a little more tightly. We hear throughout the book that Nathan is ok with it, then it seems like the problem comes sort of out of nowhere. And he feels that men come onto Isaac all the time, when we have only seen it once or twice. I totally get why this is something the men would need to work out between them, I just think it could have been developed a bit better and presented a more clearly. But I did really appreciate that Nathan figures things out very quickly and the situation is resolved rather than dragging on forever.
Overall I really enjoyed this story. There is a really nice balance between the build up to their relationship over the first part of the book and then the intensity of finally being together in the second. The guys are super hot together (the scene where they have their first condom-free blow job is particularly scorching) and I really liked them as a couple. I thought this was a great story that I would certainly recommend.