Rating: 4.25 stars
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Avi Rosen is working on his doctoral dissertation and living with his boyfriend Jack. Or at least that is what he tells himself. In reality he is going nowhere fast on his dissertation and it has been dragging on year after year. He is struggling to get by financially on his teaching assistantship and is in danger of losing even that as the positions become more scarce. And his boyfriend Jack is actually a married Wisconsin assemblymen who Avi no longer feels strongly about, but continues to maintain the relationship for the free lodging he gets as caretaker of the assemblyman’s Madison apartment.
One day a gorgeous man catches Avi’s eye. Unfortunately taking his eyes off traffic sends Avi crashing his bike and practically landing in the man’s lap. Pete Jakobsen is a sweet, good natured organic farmer with a stall at the bi-weekly farmer’s market. The two hit it off right away, but Avi’s complicated relationship with Jack makes it difficult to start anything. Avi needs to be available whenever Jack is in town, and if he really thinks about it (which he tries to avoid doing), he knows that Jack would be angry about Avi seeing someone else. In addition, Jack and Pete are on opposite sides of some pending legislation that affects organic farmers, and Pete has been actively lobbying Jack on the bill.
But Pete and Avi connect in a way neither of them has experienced in a long time and as they continue to see one another, their feelings grow. And being with Pete makes Avi take a look at his life and realize what a mess it has become, and how much better things are with Pete. But even as things develop between them, Avi’s financial problems and his relationship with Jack loom over them. And Avi worries that Pete may have any ulterior motive for dating Avi, hoping to exert influence over Jack’s vote on the organic farm bill. Will all that hanging over them, Avi must decide if he is willing to take a hard look at his own life and take some action to get things back on track.
Bentham does such a nice job in her stories of creating flawed heroes that we can really root for and I found Avi to be no exception. Between his bad choices and his ability to not think about things he’d prefer to avoid, Avi has gotten his life into somewhat of a mess. He is years into his Ph.D. studies with no progress toward finishing his dissertation. Yet he just can’t quite motivate himself to buckle down, and instead drifts along year after year as a teaching assistant, sure at some point soon he will be ready. And his situation with Jack is even worse. When they first met, Avi really fell for Jack and wanted a relationship with him, however ill-advised it was getting involved with a closeted, married man. But if Avi really examines his feelings now, he knows he no longer cares for Jack the way he once did, and if it weren’t for the free lodging, things would probably be long over. Not to mention that as Avi’s friend Isaac points out, there is not much difference between what Avi is doing – having sex with Jack in return for a place to live – than the prostitution Isaac used to pay his way through school. But Avi’s flaw is that he doesn’t really let himself think about these things, and basically he drifts along in a sort of denial.
Meeting Pete is what finally makes Avi wake up and reexamine his life. Pete is sweet and kind and sexy and so good. Avi realizes that Pete is exactly what he wants and suddenly sees how off track his life has become. But it takes him time to go from recognizing how good things are with Pete to the point where he is able to take action to really make change. And by then it may be too late, as his fears and insecurities make trusting Pete’s motives difficult. I thought Avi was a really interesting character, one that frustrated me a great deal at times, but also quite layered despite his flaws. And of course Pete is so sweetly charming and lovely that you can’t help falling for him along with Avi.
This book is the second in Bentham’s Tarnished Souls series (and features some appearances by Isaac and Nathan whom we met in Learning From Isaac). Each story takes place over a different Jewish holiday, and this one culminates over the Jewish new year Rosh Hashanah (which we just celebrated this week). Although the books feature Jewish heroes, they aren’t particularly religious or spiritual, and Bentham does a nice job of taking the theme of the holiday and tying it into the story. In this case, the Jewish new year is a time of reflection on your year, trying to correct your past mistakes and make amends for any wrongs you have done to others. Most of the story takes place over the summer, but the resolution happens over the new year and we see the themes of self-reflection, atonement, and forgiveness all interplay.
As much as I found Avi fascinating, I think the hardest thing for me with this story is that I didn’t always like him. I wanted him to stop being so complacent, to take some action to get his life in gear. I found it hard to accept that a man with a college degree and less than $150 in the bank could not go out and find some kind of job to make ends meet until his dissertation was done. I also wasn’t so thrilled with the misunderstanding/jumping to conclusions that led to the major conflict between Avi and Pete. I am not sure where the trust issues came from, but it seemed so extreme a reaction with little basis. That being said, all these things are what make up Avi, and over the course of the story he really does find himself and get things back on track. I was proud of him at the end of the book for pulling his life together and dealing with his problems directly.
I also would have loved more time with Avi and Pete together. So much of this book is the story of Avi’s personal growth, that we don’t get a whole lot of time for relationship development (and I so loved Pete, I wanted more and more of him). And my last quibble is that I would have liked to see Jack be less the all out bad guy. It seemed maybe too easy to make him be so awful, letting Avi off the hook for much of the responsibility, rather than being a little more nuanced a character.
But overall I really enjoyed this one. I loved Pete and found Avi a really interesting and unusual character. I loved his POV and watching him grow and change over the course of the story. It was fun to revisit Isaac and Nathan and catch up on how they have been. I am really enjoying this series and I am looking forward to more.