Rafael Castro is totally out of his element as he prepares for Carlisle College. The Massachusetts school and its wealthy students are a huge change from his life in urban Chicago. Rafi knows between his dark skin and the fact that he is on a rowing scholarship that his friends helped establish, it is going to take him a long time to fit in.
To top things off, for the last two years Rafi has had a complicated relationship with fellow student Denny Winslow. The two met when Denny was 17 and had just come out to his parents. The attraction was strong between both men, but with Denny underage and still struggling to figure himself out, Rafi told himself to keep hands off. However, the two shared a strong connection and a goodbye kiss that has kept them in each other’s minds and now they will finally see each other again. Part of Rafi is thrilled to get to once again be with the man he hasn’t been able to get out of his head. But he also doesn’t want to rely too much on Denny, can’t allow Denny to smooth his path and make things too easy.
Rafi is determined to stand on his own feet, even if it means keeping Denny at a distance. But adjusting to life at college and on the rowing team is harder than Rafi expects. And even though he is making friends, he still doesn’t feel like he really fits in. Denny is being patient and just wants to be there for him, but Rafi needs to decide if he is going to accept Denny’s help and let him be a part of his life, or if he is going to lose the man he hasn’t been able to forget.
So we first meet Rafi and Denny in The Girl Next Door and I fell for them immediately. You can tell there is something big between them and so I was thrilled to learn that we were getting their story. At the time, Denny was young and still figuring things out. He had just come out and his parents didn’t believe him and he ran away to stay with his cousin in Chicago. Back then, Rafi was the confident one, the one with experience with life and with men and who guided Denny along. As much as he wanted Denny, however, Rafi kept his distance because of Denny’s age and his inexperience. This book opens with a flashback to their first kiss, just as they are saying goodbye as Denny heads home.
Two years later and things are very different. Denny has grown up to a gorgeous man. He has dated other people, gotten comfortable with himself, and fits in perfectly at Carlisle. Rafi is there on a rowing scholarship that Cash and his other friends manage to wrangle with the help of their wealthy and influential parents and other alumni. Rafi knows that while he is a good rower, this scholarship went to him because of his connections and he can’t let himself forget that. He feels like he will never fit in to this liberal East Coast school with its wealthy white kids who live totally different lives than his. So as much as he wants to let himself be with Denny, he keeps holding back. Rafi doesn’t want to be seen as “Denny’s boy” or rely too heavily on him. He is determined to make it on his own, but as a result, is constantly keeping Denny at a distance. Denny is clear he will wait for Rafi to figure things out, but it is hard when Rafi is pushing him away.
I think Cousins does a really nice job here of exploring a lot of complex issues. The book touches on race and class and Rafi’s insecurities about being a big, dark skinned, urban guy in a sea of white, wealthy faces. Everywhere he goes he is conscious of how others see him and this makes him so anxious and stressed that he can’t bear the idea of appearing even more reliant on Denny than he already is. Rafi is used to knowing his way around and taking care of others and being so needy and unsure is killing him. The reversal of his relationship with Denny, where suddenly Denny is the confident one and he is uncertain, makes things even more difficult. Cousins does a nice job with this and really explores these issues nicely.
Despite this, I will admit I struggled somewhat with Rafi. Boy is he hot and cold. Rafi is so caught up in his own head, spinning and struggling, that it takes him most of the book to sort things out. In the meantime, Denny waits patiently. We think there is some progress, a kiss or a softening of their relationship, and suddenly Rafi panics and puts up walls again. I found it frustrating to see so much back and forth and it takes a very long time for things to move forward. Then when it does, I felt like this giant mountain of issues was resolved very quickly. I was often frustrated at Rafi about why he couldn’t just let go a little, open up to Denny, about whom he cares deeply. He complains that Denny doesn’t understand what he is going through, but Rafi will never talk to him. For his part, Denny is portrayed as sweet, kind, loving, with the patience of a saint, and practically perfect. At times I wondered how he possibly could put up with all of Rafi’s issues. The story is told through Rafi’s POV and honestly I think it would have helped to see things through Denny’s eyes to get a better feel for what was making him stick around through everything. So I will say that the relationship was rough for me and Rafi was a bit hard for me to warm up to. I felt sympathy for him much of the time, but other times I was really frustrated by him.
As with the rest of the series, Cousins does a great job with the supporting characters here. We get some brief time with Cash and Steph, but also meet Rafi’s roommates and fellow rowers, Austin and Vincent. I loved them and they seem pretty clearly in line for a story of their own, which would be fabulous. I also enjoyed the look into the life of a college athlete and the rowing world. Cousins gets great details without ever letting it take over the story.
So overall I enjoyed this one, but maybe not quite as much as the others. I just struggled with Rafi and while I understood where he was coming from, I needed to see more progress throughout the book, rather than so much back and forth only to have things resolve quickly at the end. But I liked Rafi and Denny together and loved getting another glimpse into this fabulous world Cousins has created. I can’t wait for more.