Rating: 4.75 stars
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After the end of his marriage, George Zajac moved to Los Angeles where he now works as the catering chef for a super fancy restaurant. He hates his boss, but enjoys the job and his coworkers, especially gorgeous waiter Kenny Marks. George is not just attracted to Kenny, but also drawn to the way Kenny can be so open about his sexuality and comfortable with himself. After growing up with an abusive father determined to “beat the gay” out of him, George is anything but comfortable in his own skin. In fact, he is emotionally scarred to the point that he can only engage in sex when “forced,” rather than being able to really accept his own desire for men.
Although George is very private at work, when Kenny finds out George is gay, he asks him out. And even though George is incredibly attracted to Kenny, he is clear they can be no more than friends with benefits. George does not feel he is good relationship material, or even that he is worthy of love and happiness, and doesn’t want to inflict himself on Kenny. So he keeps Kenny at a distance, insisting that they are “just friends” when clearly as time passes they have grown into much more.
Kenny is incredibly patient with George, but at some point it all becomes too much for him. It is so painful to be a constant secret, to have to always lead in bed, and to be still a “friend” despite the fact that the men love one another. With George unable to accept his feelings for Kenny and have a real relationship, things might fall apart despite how much they care for one other. If George wants to have the man he loves, he must work on learning to accept himself, to put the past behind him, and to move forward toward a future with Kenny.
Bread, Salt and Wine is the fourth book in Bentham’s fabulous Tarnished Souls series and I think my favorite of them all. The series has such an interesting set up, with each story linked with a different Jewish holiday. While the books are very accessible to everyone and not particularly religious, they all feature at least one Jewish character and include the celebration of a holiday in some way. What Bentham does that is so clever is look behind the holiday at the deeper meaning and relate that theme to the book. In this story, Kenny helps organize a grown up Purim party. Purim is a fun holiday that tells the ancient story of Queen Esther, a Jewish woman who marries a king. When the king’s advisor, the evil Hamen, wants to have all the Jews in the land killed, Esther must stand up for her people at great risk to herself. Despite the serious topic, Purim involves dressing up in costume as the major characters in the story, and includes lots of drinking and noise making when Haman’s name is mentioned.
At the same time, Purim is the story of prejudice and hatred, of one man’s desire to kill all the Jews, and the courage it takes to stand up for what is right even when it may put you at risk. And Bentham carries that theme throughout this story really well. We see George as a man destroyed by prejudice and homophobia, whose father’s abuse was so severe he is unable to have a functional relationship. And let me say, as bad as you think his story is going to be, when you hear it, it is even worse. We see both George’s suffering, as well as the strength and determination it takes for him to ultimately stand up for himself and put his past aside in hopes for a better future.
George is just a fascinating character and so well done. Now I will say, he is at times a hard guy to like. Although he is a kind man, a good friend and coworker, he is also so oblivious to the pain he is causing Kenny, and at times seems almost callous in his inability to realize the affect of his words or actions on this sweet man. Sometimes I just wanted to shake him or smack him and yell “wake up!” But the reality is that George is so emotionally damaged that he really can’t do any better at that point in the story. He doesn’t think he can have a relationship, or even deserves one. He actions all come from a place of self-loathing, and unfortunately Kenny gets caught in that web of self-hatred and emotional scarring.
I really appreciated the pacing of this story and it takes place over a period of about 5 years (plus a skip ahead three more for the ending). We see these guys meet, develop their relationship, run into problems, and then figure out how to work it out. It felt very true to me, and it is clear that for as much as George cares for Kenny, he is not ready for a relationship with him right away. I like that we see him figure out his life, excise his demons, and make peace with himself and his family, all the things that must happen before he can be a real partner.
If I had a tiny niggle with this story it would be that I wanted a little more understanding of what is drawing these guys to one another The story is told in intervals, each featuring a different catering event, so it jumps in time and focuses on pieces of their relationship. So we don’t get a whole lot of the everyday connection we might have in a story told more traditionally. I also think it is partly that the story is told from George’s POV, and for most of the story he is unable to even accept that they are more than just “friends,” and as a result, he can’t really express those feelings the way another character might.
So overall I really loved this one and I think it is a fabulous story. Bentham creates a fascinating character in George, and a perfect partner for him in Kenny. I loved the structure of the story and the inclusion of the holiday theme. And I loved watching George grow and find himself, and ultimately get the happiness he has always deserved. Just wonderful and highly recommended.
P.S. The books in this series are only very loosely linked and can really be read in any order and stand alone well. But for those of you who have followed along with all the books, we do get cameos from all three of the other couples, including George’s chef friend David from Sacred Hearts who has a little bit larger role.