Rating: 3.75 stars
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Nick Alsteen left his small Wisconsin town of Lacland as a teenager, looking for a new life with his mother away from his mentally ill father. Nick is now a successful artist in New York, though as the days creep closer to his next show, he begins to worry he may be a one hit wonder. When the Lacland sheriff calls to tell Nick his father has killed himself, Nick must return to his home town to see to his estranged father’s affairs.
What he finds there is a total horror show. The house is a mess, piled with papers with the scribblings of a paranoid schizophrenic. His father’s dog has been abandoned, the house is full of waste, and even the excess rope his father used to hang himself remains curled on the stairs. Just the thought of undertaking this project is almost more than Nick can bear, but he feels he owes it to his father to take care of things and there is really no one else to help.
Jonas Garastas works as a staff veterinarian at his university, and also volunteers his time at his boyfriend Fenton’s research project. When he walks in on Fenton with a younger, hotter version of himself, Jonas realizes things have been on a downward spiral between the two of them for a while now. Looking for a change of scene, Jonas takes a job as a small town vet in Lacland.
When the men meet, sparks fly and they share a hot hook up. But Jonas has just gotten out of a bad relationship and is wary of starting up another one, especially since he knows Nick is a short timer and will return to New York once the house is in order. But the two men keep being drawn back to one another, finally settling on friendship when both men really want more. Both Jonas and Nick are trying to turn their lives around, to move on from the past and figure out where their future lies. And each man would like a future with the other, if one they can take the chance on love.
Nobody’s Home is a story of two men who are struggling to find themselves amidst a bad time in their lives, each of whom finds their way unexpectedly in this small town and with each other. Nick’s story is particularly heartbreaking, as he has been estranged from his father for years. He starts off resenting, or at least indifferent to, his dad, but over time comes to recognize not only his father’s severe illness but also how much his father truly cared about him. What he faces when he returns to his childhood home is truly horrible. The place is a mess beyond imagination and the idea of tackling clearing the junk and cleaning the decay is overwhelming. Betham really makes his pain palpable as a man who is forced to return home to face some of his demons. I enjoyed seeing how Nick heals as he goes through his father’s life, reconnects with old friends, and gets that spark back that inspires him to paint once again. He is a sympathetic character and I really enjoyed his emotional journey.
Jonas too faces a messy past in not only the end of his relationship, but also the realization that there never was much there to start with. He is pretty lonely and has never felt wanted for himself, but always what he can do for others. Jonas settles in as the local vet and is looking for a fresh start. When he meets Nick, Jonas feels an instant attraction. But he is wary of getting involved again so fast, especially since Nick is leaving. Jonas only sees heartbreak in his future if he gets involved with Nick, holding out despite the fact that these guys are so drawn to each other. I found Jonas sympathetic as well, but harder to connect with than Nick. I think because we really don’t see his relationship with Fenton at all, nor much about his life prior to moving. So it is harder to feel his emotions and why he is so insecure and down on himself. He doesn’t understand why Nick likes him and thinks of Nick as out of his league, but I never really fully understood why.
I think my biggest issue with this book is that the story arc just felt very flat. They guys meet, and then each goes about their lives, occasionally interacting. But not much happens here and even the ending felt somewhat anticlimactic. Jonas and Nick’s journeys felt very individual, and they spend so little time together on page that I never really felt invested in them as a couple. They were likable, but I just didn’t feel the chemistry or the need to see them succeed together like I usually do.
And strangely, they felt somewhat interchangeable as characters. Even at the end of the book I kept having to remind myself which was which. I think perhaps because both these men are going through emotional upheavals, their character arcs are very similar. And both have dogs, both are new to the town. Despite the fact that they each have interesting jobs, we see very little of either of them at work. So even that distinguishing factor is lessened. I liked them both, but they just both felt a little bland to me.
One of my favorite parts of the book, and what I think will be a spark for many readers, are the guys’ dogs. Jonas adopts a St. Bernard mix right before moving, and Nick ends up inheriting his father’s dog and a new puppy. The animals are adorable and charming, and seeing Nick nursing the tiny puppy and holding him in a sling against his chest gave me all those warm feelings. Bentham really captures not just the love these men have for the animals, but how much comfort and support the dogs provide to each of them.
So I think this was a story with lots of nice elements. Bentham really captures that sense of grief Nick experiences and the daunting task that he faces. We see both these men struggle with the loss of something in their lives and the attempt to find their way. And the dogs are an adorable highlight of the story. I just think overall it was a little too flat for me. There just wasn’t enough tension in the plot or intensity of the characters to really draw me into the story fully. So while it was a pleasant read, it didn’t captivate me like some of Bentham’s other work. But I do think this story will work for many, especially if you are an animal lover or a fan of the hurt/comfort theme.