Rating: 3.75 stars
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As he gets ready to start graduate school, Stanley Sternbaum is finally getting out of his mother’s house and renting his own apartment. The rundown Belladonna Arms doesn’t look too promising from the outside (nor from the inside for that matter), but it is close to school and gives him lovely views of San Diego. And it is not with his mom, which pretty much seals the deal.
It turns out the Belladonna Arms is full of interesting people, and slowly the super shy Stanley begins to make friends. It kicks off with Arthur, the world’s ugliest drag queen, and continues to Chi Chi, the leather-bound “masseuse,” and Ramon the beauty school student, among others. But the man who strikes fear in Stanley’s heart is gorgeous nurse Roger Jane. Roger is so beautiful as to be almost godlike and shy Stanley can barely function around him. He is sure that if he spends time with Roger, he will fall for the man, and he knows Roger is so far out of his league it would only lead to heartbreak.
But it turns out that Roger is actually quite interested Stanley. The hardest part is getting Stanley to believe there could be something real between them and to take a chance on love.
I loved the setup of this story, with a whole cast of fun and sort of wacky characters all living in the same building. Pretty much all of them are gay, and while they are all sort of over the top, they are also a lot of fun. In addition to those I mentioned, we also meet Charlie, the kleptomaniac delivery man; Sylvia, the trans woman who bakes amazing cookies; and even her shy secret admirer. They make a great backdrop for the story and, as crazy as they are, end up being good friends to Stanley who is so shy he can barely function. Yet somehow here he manages to settle in and become one of the crazy gang.
The main conflict of the story focuses on Stanley and Roger, and Stanley’s inability to accept Roger’s feelings for him. Stanley is incredibly shy and insecure. He sees nothing attractive about himself and can’t believe anyone else can either. Stanley spends weeks tiptoeing past Roger’s door for fear of the man spotting him, so worried is he about interacting with Roger. Roger is his fantasy come to life and Stanley is sure he will fall for him and only get heartbroken.
I did like the switch up here in that the gorgeous Roger is the one pursuing Stanley. It is clear to everyone but Stanley that Roger is crazy for him. So I liked to see sweet Stanley finally realize that in fact this amazing man really does want him. And once these guys get together they are both a sweet and super hot couple.
The biggest problem I had with this story, however, is getting to this realization is a long and very slow process. Stanley just refuses to let himself believe that Roger could want him. Despite the fact that Roger is practically throwing himself at Stanley, Stanley manages to convince himself at every turn that it is pity, his imagination, or any other possible explanation other than attraction. This continues over and over as Roger puts himself out there and Stanley finds a way to convince himself there is no way Roger can be interested. And even once Stanley finally accepts Roger may really like him, he then decides Roger will eventually tire of him, so best not to let things go too far. I will say I found it tiresome to see this back and forth continue over and over for so long. I get that Stanley is shy, I really do. But his total lack of self-awareness and his inability to read even the most blatant signs got frustrating, especially since it just kept repeating for so much of the story.
The pacing also felt a little off here because when Stanley finally accepts that Roger does like him and agrees to be with him, they have a big declaration of love and it seems like the story should be over. Honestly, I thought for a moment my file was corrupted and I was actually at the end rather than around 65%. It’s not that the rest of the story wasn’t interesting, because it was. But it was like the climax of the book came at the end of the second act. Then the rest of the story was mostly tying up loose ends and hooking up a bunch of side characters. So I enjoyed seeing how things came together, but it was just sort of unusual pacing to have the romance resolve and the book basically be conflict free with 35% of the story to go.
I will also say that I wish these characters were fleshed out a little more. Stanley starts out sort of adorably bumbling and geeky, and he does have some interesting moments as he reflects on his past with his parents, his choice of career, etc. But his character becomes mostly boiled down to the shy guy with no self confidence very quickly. For his part, Roger is also a lovely guy, but basically perfect. He is gorgeous, kind, considerate, ENDLESSLY patient with Stanley, and pretty much flawless. We never see him make a wrong move throughout the book and everyone loves him. I loved him too, don’t get me wrong. Everyone would love Roger. But I wanted a little more depth to both of these guys.
So I did like the set up and enjoyed a lot about this book. I loved the side plot with Sylvia and her issues being a trans woman and trying to pay for her surgery. I really liked all the side characters and getting to meet all the quirky folks who live in the Belladonna Arms. And I enjoyed Inman’s trademark humor and the sweetness of the story. But I think my frustration with Stanley’s inability to accept Roger’s interest made it hard for me to fall for this book completely. I continue to be a fan of Inman’s writing and I won’t hesitate to pick up another of his books, but this one just didn’t totally come together for me.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.