Rating: 4 stars
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Ethan West has longed to study abroad since his first language class. Now a sophomore in college, his chance is coming. Ethan is going to spend a year in Germany, studying at the prestigious University in Freiburg. He’s excited, and just knows that it’s going to be the best year of his life. Having broken up with his boyfriend the day before he leaves, Ethan is ready to embrace the experience without anything weighing him down.
Upon arriving and getting to the dorm that will be his home for the next year, he meets one of his floormates, Daniel. Daniel, apparently, dislikes him on sight and Ethan can’t understand why. For the first few weeks, Ethan struggles, trying to find his place but then he makes a few friends and starts to settle in. When Ethan is injured while swimming, Daniel comes to his rescue, taking him to the hospital so he can get stitched up. Ethan is confused by Daniel’s about face where he is concerned, and when he confronts Daniel, the man apologizes and they become friends.
Ethan and Daniel begin a friendship that transcends anything Ethan has ever known. Daniel is there for him, closer than anyone has been before, and Ethan starts to fall in love with him. Though he thinks Daniel is straight, Ethan is receiving mixed signals and makes a pass at him. Daniel rebuffs him, confirming that he’s not attracted to guys. Ethan is hurt, but they are able to remain friends. Ethan even goes home with Daniel over Christmas break. But it is while in Daniel’s home that Ethan discovers the truth about why Daniel is so drawn to him. Upset about the deceit, Ethan leaves on the train back to Freiburg.
Back at the university, Daniel has disappeared without a word. Ethan is hurt, but he tries to move on. While on the square at the university, Ethan is swept up in the protest against the education tax. He’s almost arrested, but Daniel appears and rescues him. Days later, Ethan is arrested and faces deportation for his unwitting participation in the protest. His only recourse for staying would be to give Daniel up. Now Ethan has to decide if he will turn Daniel in so he can stay and finish his study, or protect the man he loves, even though Daniel can’t love him back, and go home.
This is a coming of age story of a young man trying to spread his wings and fly. It is a love story, but it is not a romance. I had very mixed feelings while reading it. Ethan was a very endearing character and I was rooting for him throughout his journey. I loved watching him explore the new culture of Germany and try to find his footing. I loved watching him connect with Daniel, and build friendships with other people. Ethan really grew as a person throughout this story and it was lovely to see.
That being said, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. His connection with Daniel was palpable, it sparked and leapt off the page. Daniel’s affection and caring for Ethan was a beautiful thing. But to me, it did seem to have sexual overtones, despite the fact that Daniel professed to be straight. I kept expecting any moment for Daniel to admit to his attraction to Ethan. But that didn’t happen. And when we find out the real reason behind Daniel’s need to connect to Ethan, I was simply heartbroken for Ethan and pretty angry with Daniel for being so secretive.
(What follows is a spoiler for Daniel’s secret and the book’s resolution.)[spoiler]Daniel’s brother, Marc, died a year ago. It is implied that Marc killed himself. Daniel took it really hard and, when he first sees Ethan, he’s struck by how much Ethan looks like Marc. This is why at first he is cold and distant to Ethan. But over time, Daniel basically uses Ethan as a replacement for Marc. Ethan finds out after seeing a picture of Marc, and though I can understand why Daniel never said anything to Ethan, it really tainted their whole relationship for me. It also made the ending, when Daniel and Ethan were saying goodbye, seem cheap, as Daniel was really saying goodbye to his brother, and not Ethan.[/spoiler]
There were a lot of interesting facts about Germany, and Freiburg in particular, and I loved the way the author wove them in throughout the story. There were also ties to what happened during WWII and the Nazi regime. There were some wonderful correlations between Ethan’s experience and the education tax protest and the subversive anti-Nazi group that tried to make a difference in 1945. I actually liked this aspect a lot, but I did feel that, at times, it was just a bit contrived. I think it would have benefitted by being just a little less part of the story as a whole. There were a couple of places where I thought there could be tighter editing, but this didn’t really affect the story overall. And I want to make a quick mention that this story is told in the first person, present tense because, while it’s not my favorite style to read, I think it worked really well in this instance. It gave it a real feel of Ethan relating his experience and journey to the reader.
Overall, I liked this book. It was really about Ethan’s growth and change, and the author told a great story about a young man experiencing new things and growing as a man. While there were some parts I found disappointing, overall it was an enjoyable read. I recommend it for anyone who likes a good story about a boy becoming a man, and watching his world reshape to fit his new world view.