Rating: 3 stars
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Nicholas Sandford and Alexander Lasseter were friends for years before their mutual agent partnered them in a film that would bring them success as actors and link them together in the public’s memory as the best of friends. When renowned director Robert King sends them a script that is almost guaranteed to give them the roles of their lives, only one of them is eager to accept. The problem is that the script calls for Nick and Alex to play friends who become lovers during the course of the film, including nudity and sex scenes.
Alex has always known that he is attracted to men but has kept that side of himself hidden from Nick. Nick has always thought of himself as straight, although his dates with women are few and the number of relationships he has had is zero. But to act in this film, Nick faces the condemnation of his family, his own fear of taking a role he wants dearly, and the fact that if he turns down this part, Alex will go on to other films without him, leaving Nick and their friendship behind.
When Nick and Alex agree to act in the film, everything between them starts to change with just one kiss. As fantasy turns into reality, Nick must face his own fears about his sexuality and come to an acceptance about himself as well as Alex in order for the men to move forward with their careers and romance.
Short review? A stultifying, well written story that follows two friends’ journey through endless self examination of their sexuality and their roles in their friendship to a final acceptance of their homosexuality and love. That’s the cliff notes review, the succinct version of what is to follow.
Everything about this book should have made me feel so much stronger about the plot and characters than I actually do. The plot is a terrific one…in theory. It’s really one man’s introspective journey to self awareness and acceptance of his sexuality through the course of a film role and with help with his best friend/love interest. It should be painful, dramatic, and finally fulfilling, yet this story is none of those things. Instead it feels drawn out, verbose, of only middling tension, with characters that never rise to the reality and drama of the roles they are filming.
The first hint of a problem with Acting Out arrives with Nick Standford. The story starts out in Nick’s POV and immediately the reader is plunged into an almost endless stream of thoughts from Nick about his conflicting feelings about the role he is being asked to play, his friendship with Alex, his family, Alex’s sister, the swan in the river….on and on it goes and we haven’t even reached page 4. Just the appearance of Nick on a page means that a full blown dithering inner monologue is sure to follow. How can a reader even begin to care about a character if even reading that character’s thoughts feels like a walk through a bog? Here is Nick waiting for Alex to appear:
The only good thing was their mutual agent, Alana Reynolds, wouldn’t be here. She of the overlong and straight blonde hair hanging like a curtain, swaying, seductive, invariably irritating Nick to hell. Whenever she looked at Alex, gone was the unsettling stare Nick paid her so well to use while representing him. Nick saw nothing hard, cold, or business-like when she skimmed that large frame. He’d never known Alana to gawk at anyone with a less than analytical eye, and the realisation that she did otherwise left him torn between gratitude not to be the object of her scrutiny and belligerence because she paid Alex such close attention. Around Alex, her expression came close to an open display of desire. For some reason, Nick didn’t like it.
He didn’t want to know whether Alex had seduced Alana, or she him. He was doubtful the two were having sex; still, he disliked the possibility. He could imagine those perfect bodies locking together too easily, but he tried not to. Imagining Alana naked was one thing, but considering what an attractive couple they made struck him as disturbing. Women could look at other women to say they were appealing, even beautiful. Men didn’t do that. They called each other “fit,” and it was too easy to gaze at Alex and see an extremely fit man, indeed. He didn’t feel comfortable admiring Alex; he never had, even though he had a case of justifiable envy. Those broad shoulders and muscular build, the square jaw and disarming grin… Nick swallowed, wanting an antacid. He touched his tie, fingered his lapel, and looked around, wondering if they’d have such a thing on the premises. Probably against Health and Safety. He should have been even more gracious to the serving girl, who would have no doubt given him anything he wanted.
That is one of Nick’s shorter moments, most of them are actually quite protracted in every way you can imagine. Alex is a little better. He is already comfortable with his sexuality, although not out because of his profession. He is one of those actors that get the action/suspense roles that command large sum salaries and huge box office returns, unlike Nick who gets the lanky, brainy, geeky roles. The point of view switches back and forth between Alex and Nick, but honestly neither character comes across as realistic or particularly memorable. Nick constantly frets about his thoughts and emotions toward Alex and the film roles they are to play and the reader should be right there with him emotionally as he works through his inner conflicts. Instead, the writing and descriptions, although well written and with a certain style, don’t even begin to bring an element of real passion and pain into the equation. We just don’t get any real measure of angst or mental anguish, just a mention of emotional discomfort and irritation.
One thing stood out for me in this very serious story and that is the lack of humor. A touch of humor, self depreciating or otherwise, can lift a scene up, enlivening it along with the characters. And that element is missing along with any real drama or emotional highlights. Or should I say emotional highlights that feel like emotional highlights.
From beginning to end, neither the characters or the narrative serve to involve the reader emotionally in this story. I can’t decide whether it is the constant musings on their sexuality and the possibilities of sexual attraction, or the inner arguments as well as monologues that continue ad infinitum that serve to distance the reader from these characters. But what ever the source, I found myself disconnected from this story and the men through the very same emotional channels that should be engaging our attention and that is such a shame as the story had real promise. A promise it never delivered.
The Calm and Chaos part of the title is derived from two acting roles the men played in a film, their first together. Colin Calm Cameron and Chandler Chaos Chance, two detectives, partners as well as friends. That film and those roles sounded far more interesting than Acting Out, which is the first in a series. For myself, I am leaving this series at the first book. If you are a fan of this author, than you might consider reading this story, otherwise I would give it a pass.
Cover Design: Kelly Shorten is very nondescript, it could be for any story, not just this one.
The basic premise of this novel sounds somewhat similar to that of “Embracing Love,” a yaoi manga (m/m Japanese comics series) by Youka Nitta (available in translation from the SuBLime division of Viz Manga). Except that in “Embracing Love,” the two leads are both (straight) porn actors who are trying to cross over into regular acting by appearing in an art film about two men in love, then wind up falling in love in real life. “Embracing Love” is also much better than “Acting Out” sounds, based on your review and the endlessly-nattering excerpt from the book you provided.