Rating: 5 stars
Spencer Hawkins feels like a failure. His best friend and closeted lover has unexpectedly left him and he’s finished his degree with no job prospects, no money in the bank, and is unwilling to ask his family for any support as they are stretched as thin as they come. A surprise phone call presents Spencer with the prospect of a new job and future in a new city, Cleveland, Ohio.
Hunter Harrison is struggling in the face of increasing stress and constant heartache. His partner has abandoned him and their adopted son, Ethan. Ethan has a heart defect and needs a heart transplant if he is to live. Faced with losing his son and his mounting medical bills, Hunter desperately needs the one thing missing from his life lately — hope.
Both men come together at a time in their lives when they need each other the most. Spencer needs a man he can trust with his heart, someone he can build a future with. Hunter needs someone who will love not only him but a very special boy as well. For each man, the other represents love and hope for a future together if only they will reach out for it.
Hope is the final book in the Home series by William Neale, published after his death in March. I am not sure that any review or reviewer will be able to separate the sadness felt by the passing of this wonderful author from the emotions engendered by his last work. In one of his interviews he said he wrote what he loved and didn’t feel that his characters were autobiographical. While I can imagine he meant that, I can also see Neale’s generous nature and loving heart reflected back from the characters here and in previous books. If the eyes are the windows into the soul, surely one can discern the kindness and inherent goodness of the author through the characters he created and that the readers so cared so much about.
Spencer and Hunter are just part of a family of main characters at the center of Hope. They are both men of character and proponents of old fashioned values. They value the interior life above exterior perfections and raise love and family above all other concerns. Both are beautifully written and realistically constructed characters that are easy to fall in love with. So is 11-year-old Ethan, living with severe aortic stenosis, a disease I was not familiar with until now. Ethan leaps into your heart with each hard won breath as you root for him to pull through. It is clear that Neale did a great job researching this condition and the medical technology needed to deal with it. Information about the Berlin Heart and heart transplants are seamlessly threaded through the story, gently educating the reader on the difficulties children with this disorder face on a daily basis.
We also meet Lucas Reed and Rogan James from Home #1, a book that remained one of the author’s favorites, as well as their son Rogie, his friend Ryan, and new characters of ambivalent morality, Thom Kilbane and Ashton Hale. Thom is a complicated man, driven by his need for success and hiding his traumatic child abuse behind a hedonistic lifestyle. Ashton is an unlikable bully until his background of parental neglect and isolation is revealed. One fully fleshed out character after another comes forward in this story. This inner circle is surrounded by secondary characters just as authentic and beautifully realized as the main ones. Chief Boleyn of Winton Academy security, Coach Perleman, Winton’s football coach, and even Stephen, Lucas and Rogan’s neighbor, all add depth and dimension to a story concerned with the nature of families, personal redemption, and hope.
William Neale lived with his partner of over a decade and their dogs in Cleveland, Ohio where the Home stories are located. Cleveland is easily the 12th man (in football terminology) or main character in this story. His love for his home town flows throughout the story, whether he is talking about the lakeside effect on the snowfall or the view from the high rises along the lake front. I was laughing as Spencer, a southern transplant, tried to adjust to the cold, drive in the snow, and deal with the vagaries of snow blowers in winter. I am sure Neale was laughing as he wrote it as well. In the space of a series, Cleveland goes from cold, unknown location to a beloved destination called home. I am sure the city is missing one of its biggest champions as well.
From laughter to tears and back again, the reader remains deeply engaged in the relationships and families at the center of Hope. Once started, I couldn’t put the book down until I had finished it. Hours later, I still continued to think about the author and his last story. What did I take away from Hope? What did I feel was the essence of the book? The idea that goodness and kindness of spirit will win out, that personal redemption is a road to be taken instead of unattainable goal, and that love and hope is all around us if only we can recognize it. I had come to love Spencer, Hunter, Ethan, Lucas, Rogen, and all the rest so very much that the knowledge of Hope being the last book was hard to face as is the loss of William Neale’s voice to the readers and m/m community that he cared so much about. I was often in tears as I read this book and you will be too.
Make sure you read the editor’s note from Kris Jacen and above all the message from Neale’s partner Marty at the beginning of the novel. Have tissues handy. You will need them. To read these letters to Neale’s fans and readers is to further understand the man behind the stories and how large the void his passing has left. The characters of Hope have so many dimensions to them, so much life in them that they will remain as unforgettable as the author behind them. William Neale will continue to live on in the books and characters he has left behind and in the memories and hearts of all who knew and loved him. That is a wonderful legacy. Mr. Neale, you are deeply missed.
Cover: Design and artwork by Winterheart Designs. A beautiful cover that does justice to the author and the story within.