Rating: 3.25 stars
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It is 1984. Wayne Robinson, hair dresser and sometimes artist, surprisingly has always been an out gay man, even flamboyantly so given the small college town he lives in. He is surrounded by the people he has known all his life and his family lives nearby. After dumping his ex for sleeping around, Wayne sees Professor Adrian Taylor and immediately falls into instant lust and then love. Wayne starts pursuing the man until he “catches” him. But Wayne feels insecure and undereducated in Adrian’s presence. And the man gives Wayne mixed signals whenever they are together, so much so that Wayne is confused as to what Adrian really wants from him.
Dr. Adrian Tayl0r is in the closet as a professor at the local college and the courtship of the gorgeous young hairdresser has turned his tightly controlled, neat lifestyle upside down. When Adrian buys an huge old Victorian house in town to fix up, live in, and rent out rooms, he invites young campy Wayne to move in with him. But neither man is good at communicating with each other, and misunderstandings quickly arise over what each man expects from the other when living under the same roof. Then a close friend of Wayne’s falls ill with AIDS and fear rocks the town. Can both men come to a mutual understanding before they lose their chance at a relationship?
A Mutual Understanding had the potential to become a wonderful, realistic look at a small town’s reaction to gays and the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, but that promise was never fulfilled as the story lingered over a miscast romance between main characters who never captured my attention or affection. I did love Wayne Robinson, the campy and out young hairdresser with the big heart. The descriptions of Wayne taking his mother on her visits to her friends on Sunday were perfect. I could see the whole thing unfold before me as though I was in the room with “Auntie Marge,” her mother Flo, and the old dog outside on the porch. I only wish the affection, care, and authenticity the author took in creating these scenes carried throughout the book. You understood these people immediately as small town USA is populated with them. In fact the book is full of easily recognizable small town characters, from the owner of the hair parlor where Wayne works, to the people at the diner. So it feels right when the town “seemingly” accepts Wayne’s homosexuality as he is one of theirs until another gay man in town comes down with AIDS and the acceptance is seen for the fragile thing it really is as fear and ignorance take over. But again given the time period, the actions of the townspeople are in keeping with the era and the AIDS timeline.
Outside of the romance, Wayne acts in an appropriately realistic manner. He comforts his friend who has AIDS, he rescues those in need, he supports his itinerant younger brother until he realizes the extent his brother has taken advantage of him. I love the portrait the author paints of Wayne’s family and their interaction with their son as well as his friends, again another terrific element here.
So what is the problem with this book? That would be the character of Dr. Adrian Taylor and the romance between the two main characters. There is nothing remotely attractive about this man so his appeal to Wayne is never understood, especially in light of his treatment of Wayne throughout the novel. Yes, Adrian is in the closet so Wayne’s appearance at his office time after time poses a threat to his closeted life. I do get that. But this is a rigid, closed off man who thinks very highly of himself. The author has him saying to Wayne, “Oh, I see you have been reading again” repeatedly after Wayne has used a more erudite word or phrase. Are we supposed to find this constant disparagement adorable? Why are we supposed to like this pompous, priggish man and think him a welcome companion to a very endearing young man? I just could never see it nor could I understand the author’s fondness for this character. It never made any sense, and therefore I never bought into their love story. When you can’t sell the love affair in a romance book, you know the author is in trouble.
Another thing that didn’t make sense was having a man in his early forties acting as though he was much older, with antiquated mannerisms to go with the antiques he collected. Even in the 80s, being in your forties was not considered old. Acting in a frigid manner in your forties yes, acting as though you were frozen in the 1800s? No. Adrian is perhaps the only character who came across as flattened cardboard cutout and that ruined any potential for the romance aspect of this book.
This is the first book I have read by Caro Soles and I try never to judge an author based solely on one novel. So I look forward to reading more of this author to see if the potential I see here is reflected elsewhere in her stories. Again, had the character of Adrain been removed and the story concentrated on Wayne and his friend with AIDS, I think this review would have been totally different. But I would give A Mutual Understanding a pass when you are choosing your next book to read.
Cover: Deana Jamroz is the cover artist. Dr. Adrian Taylor does not fit the man in the background who seems too young for his description.