Rating: 4.5 stars
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Portland chef David Schwartz has just received the phone call that signals the beginning of the end. Rick, his partner both at work and in life, has once again fallen into gambling despite his promises to stop. And now it turns out he has lost everything, including all the money in David’s business and personal accounts. David knew he should not have believed Rick when he promised to do better, but he wanted to have faith that the man would turn things around. And though he has now broken up with Rick for good, David is left with nothing, forced to liquidate his business, declare bankruptcy, and move back in with his father.
When an old friend calls with a temporary job offer, David is thrilled at the opportunity. He will be working a catering job on a movie set in Puerto Villarta for the month. Coming back to Mexico is bittersweet for David. As a senior in college he came to Mexico for a semester, fell in love, and lost that love. The loss sent him into a spiral of alcoholism that it took a long time to recover from. Now 10 years later he is back in a place that reminds him of his lover, especially because it is the same time of year, Chanukah. But being in Mexico is also a fresh start for David and an opportunity to begin putting his life back together.
Things get even better when he meets a gorgeous stranger in a club one night, a man who looks just like the one David has been dreaming of. David and John have a hot encounter on the beach, but John flees immediately afterwards. But there is clearly an instant connection between the men, one that both of them feel, even though John is still skittish. As the men get to know one another the attraction grows stronger and they begin to share the secrets of their past. But when David’s catering job is over, he must return to the U.S. to deal with his bankruptcy case and try to find a permanent job. However, once he returns, David still feels the pull of Mexico and his feelings for John. David stands at a crossroads and must decide if he is ready to take a leap of faith and reach for happiness even when so much of his future is uncertain.
This is the third story in Bentham’s Tarnished Souls series, each centering around a different Jewish holiday, in this case Chanukah. What I really like is how the author goes beyond just having characters celebrating the holiday in her stories (although the celebration of Chanukah does have a significant role in the book). But she also takes the meaning behind the holiday and threads it through the story and the characters’ journeys. In this case, Chanukah (along with other winter holidays) is a time where we begin the transition from the long, dark winters into the shorter days of spring. We start to go from those endless nights to a time when the sun returns and we get a rebirth. And here that is exactly what happens to David, and is in a sense what has happened to John as well. David starts the book in the bleakest of places. He life has basically come apart with the loss of his restaurant, his apartment, his relationship, and most of his belongings. In some ways it is liberating for him, allowing him to open himself up to a totally new life and new experiences as his old one has been destroyed. And over the course of the book, that light returns for David. He slowly makes his way back from the unhappy person he was even before his breakup. He finds love and happiness and a fulfilling job and a new relationship, all things that change his life. I think this is so well done and this theme of going from darkness to light is so nicely integrated into the story.
I really liked David and wanted to see him succeed. While we feel for him as his life falls apart, David never feels pathetic or an object of pity. He recognizes his role in his fate by his inability to say no to Rick. And he accepts what has happened to him and moves on. And most importantly, through it all David realizes how lucky he is to have a wonderful father who loves him and welcomes him home and good friends who care about him. He knows that despite his troubles, there are still many far worse off. So we can really cheer for David as he begins to find his happiness and set a new course for his life.
John is a little harder to get to know, as he is only revealed to us a bit at a time as David gets to know him. And a lot of John’s story unfolds in surprising ways throughout the book, so I won’t got into too much detail here. But he is a man who is still learning about relationships and recovering from his own life upheaval. The men make a good match as they both understand what it is to re-evaluate your life and have to make difficult decisions about where you are and where you want to be. They are very sweet and romantic together and I was really rooting for them to make it.
Bentham does a really wonderful job of making the Mexican towns and landscape come alive in her writing. She provides great detail on everything from the sights and sounds, the smells, the food, the people. I could feel like I was right there on the boardwalk of Puerto Villarta, smelling the tamales and the salt air. We get great descriptions of the beautiful beaches, the lovely towns, and the interesting people that they meet. The setting really comes alive and it is easy to see why David falls in love with the area.
So overall a really nice story. It is not fast and flashy and despite the quick jump into sex, the relationship develops slowly between the men. But it is a sweet and romantic story of two men whose lives turn upside down but manage to remake themselves and find happiness together. I really enjoyed it.
P.S. I like that the cover actually depicts these men as they are described, right down to John’s curls and David’s shaved head. It is good enough that I can overlook the place in the book that David describes John as “burying his hands in my hair.” 😉