Under the guise of participating in a program for the gifted, Gabriel’s parents allow the government to “host” their son at a special campus. Little did they or Gabriel know the nefarious purpose of that program. Instead of accelerated coursework and grueling schedules, Gabriel and the others were the subjects of a top secret experiment that left them with debilitating physical symptoms and extraordinary responses to threatening stimuli.
It’s a small wonder that Gabriel is able to cobble together a life after the program leaders dumped him as a failed case. Still, they stand by him and support him. Without their guidance and patience, Gabriel knows his life would be infinitely more difficult. Yet he never forgets just how much of a burden he must be imposing upon those closest to him.
That starts to change when Gabriel meets Laurie—a guy unlike any other. Both Gabriel and Laurie feel an undeniable attraction. However, Gabriel is convinced nothing good could ever come of letting someone get close to him; Laurie, on the other hand, is convinced not getting close to Gabriel would be a fate worse than death.
When Gabriel’s past catches up to them both, hard decisions are made and feelings are hurt. When the government itself has a vested interest in someone, the past is never far behind and they will never voluntarily let go. It’s up to Gabriel and Laurie to determine if what they feel for one another is more powerful that the selfish forces pulling them apart, or if they’ll just give in.
All of which sounds well and good, but this book failed to capture my attention, let alone hold it.
Gabriel is the central character and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s the very definition of loathsome. He starts off as a quintessential tosser and never improves on-page (the last few pages hint that maybe he will redeem himself, but we never see that play out). In a nutshell, he’s cruel, utterly ambivalent about life and love (pertaining to him and those around him), a touch misogynistic, emotionally abusive, and demonstrates an annoying quirk of being unable to finish sentences and the reader is left to languish visually with an endless supply of ellipses.
The guy who becomes his boyfriend, Laurie, is marginally better—I’d rate him more of a bellend. Based on the blurb available for public consumption, I was expecting a meek/shy Laurie serving as the perfect foil to bitter/breaking-down Gabriel and the two balance each other out. Instead, he’s cool and confident and, apparently, hot. As he pursues a relationship with Gabriel, I started getting pretty strong stalker-ish vibes from the guy. Although the instances mentioned below were never in the context of forcing sexual intimacy, the underlying theme remains the same to me: Laurie relentlessly pursuits a relationship with Gabriel despite obvious verbal and physical cues that Gabriel is not interested. Although technically, Gabriel only physically and verbally pushes Laurie away, the first-person perspective narration through Gabriel reveals this isn’t always the case. Still, it’s not enough to satisfy me because I still see this as reinforcing the “no means yes” kind of mentality.
For example, in this scene Laurie and Gabriel have gone drinking with acquaintances and they start to tease Laurie and Gabriel about the status of their relationship. Gabriel feels emotionally confined and storms off alone:
I groan and speed up. I’d have preferred a mugger. But no, I’m not that lucky. I want someone I can justifiably beat up and what I get is the last person I could ever hit—although he’s the one I most want to pulp right now.
“Gabriel, please wait.”
Yeah, right. No Chance.
Laurie has an almost uncanny knack of catching me off guard. Before I can even turn, he grabs my arm and swings me off the bath, against a tree. He plants his hands either side of my head and presses his body against mine.
This is page 37 of 218 or so they’re hardly established and, in fact, what set Gabriel off the fact that his friends were pumping him for details about his too-new-to-be-a-relationship relationship with Laurie. And what does Laurie do? Pulls some Class A assholery like Gabriel is someone he can and has the right to manhandle. But that same passage goes on (or spirals down):
“Wait. Talk to me. What happened? Why are you so upset?”
“You bastard. Get your fucking hands off me.” This time…it’s Laurie’s turn to be surprised as I slip my hand down between us and squeeze his balls…hard. He gives a sharp cry and steps back, holding himself. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”
“Do what?” he gasps, tears in his eyes.
“Where do I start?” I count them off on my fingers. “One…I’m not your fucking boyfriend and you do not…I repeat…do not have the right to kiss me whenever you feel like, especially in public. Two…do not follow me through the woods and expect me not to rip off your head. I get twitchy when I’m followed through areas like this. Three…never, never pin me against a wall, tree, or other inanimate object. Who the fucking hell do you think you are? How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not interested in your stupid games, in your…in our…I’m not interested.” I peter off and finish lamely, because I’m looking into his eyes.
Laurie smiles a slow smile. He steps towards me again.
I can’t fault Gabriel for going for the balls because Laurie is being a complete knob, but despite the ball-grabbing (and not the good kind) and the heated words (albeit ones that “peter out”), Laurie STILL pushes his suit.
Weak-sauce characters don’t necessarily make a story bad and Gabriel and Laurie had some phenomenal help from the plot: Gabriel is the subject of a now-defunct government-run experiment and just surviving the experimentation wasn’t the end of the fallout, since this story focuses on how those experiments affected Gabriel’s mental health. It had the thriller-theme going for it and completely fails to deliver. So much time is spent waffling in the mire of Gabriel’s contemptible self, there’s a little exegesis on HOW the experiment rears its ugly head, but I didn’t think there was anything to support that side of the story. The author just tells us the government now is 110% interested in using Gabriel for their nefarious deeds and so…they do. End of explanation. Of course, the big conflict is how Gabriel could ever escape the clutches of the government. Enter deus ex machine (version “boyfriend”)—made especially irritating because, despite the narration flip flopping between first-person Gabriel and first-person Laurie, the author failed to explain how Laurie pulled off the save of the day AND what exactly the government was forcing Gabriel to do (and how far it went).
Plus, the prose suffers the same afflictions the characters do as it’s the definition of jejune.
For example, soon after Laurie and Gabriel meet at a club, they agree to a second meeting and have this encounter:
“I’m captivated by your awesome beauty and your intriguing personality.”
He smiles brightly, but he isn’t joking. For a moment, I’m stunned and something stirs around my heart, something warm. I slam down on it. What am I thinking?
This is only their second encounter, the first having been making eyes at each other in a club before some guys pick on Gabriel—which causes the man to “hulk out” and beat the tar out of the guys without breaking a sweat before basically passing out, leaving Laurie to wrangle Gabriel home. This does not indicate any kind of “intriguing” personality but more like “sociopathic” violent tendencies (albeit ones induced by a government experience, which is another point sorely under explored on-page…there’s no way Laurie could have known that on day two).
Overall, this story is very character driven, but I think it suffers from starring such hateful main characters and from major plot points being completely obscured virtually into nonexistence until it’s time to plod forward. I was also very turned off that there was no apparently effort to put these fucked up characters on something of a hero’s journey to redeem something about them NOR was their terribleness used to make a point/teach a moral about being an asshole. This book is a hard pass for me.