Anyone will tell you that spending a year abroad will unquestionably change the way you experience life. This was also true for Guy, who decided to really perfect his language skills (and maybe bag a few foreign hotties) while living in the French countryside. Instead of enjoying the challenge of overcoming linguistic and cultural differences, however, Guy ended up feeling mired in them. After a rocky start with his host family, things went downhill fast and the aftermath left him with a very screwed up relationship with food, self-image, and self-worth.
Xavier, a native of France now living and working in Sweden, tries to help the angsty-looking Guy when he gets referred to Xavier’s hospital for dietary counseling. Pegging him as emo-tastic at first glance, there is nevertheless something about Guy that captures Xavier’s attention. It’s more than the book of French poetry squirreled away in Guy’s bag, more than the aloof attitude. As they move from acquaintanceship, to tug-buddies, to something else, Xavier fails to see the signs he supposed to be trained to see until far too late. It takes a shattering wake-up call from his roommate to force Xavier to reevaluate how he interacts with the world and with the people who mean the most to him. But there’s no guarantee his new outlook on others will be enough to convince Guy to give him and their relationship a real chance.
Wow. I really enjoyed this story in and of itself and for reasons that relate entirely to my own circumstances. Guy was an exchange student; I was an exchange student. I loved reading about his experiences and comparing them to mine. Although he ended up hating everything about the program he participated in, I loved mine and that ocean of difference notwithstanding, Bohm writes about the experience in a true-to-life kind of way. There was also Xavier’s roommate, Laila. I absolutely loved the way she figured into the story for purely selfish reasons. The shattering wake-up call I mentioned in the synopsis is more like a “mic drop” moment, I’d say. Laila sums up a whole lot of feels I have about things and I couldn’t love on her more for shoving them into Xavier’s face to make him wake the fuck up and get the fuck down from his high horse. If you have ever had self-image issues, I think you’ll identify with her sentiments (hell, if you’re a cognizant human, her bit toward the end will make you stop and reconsider).
Moving on to actual story things, our two main characters are obviously Guy and Xavier. The chapters flip-flop between third-person omniscient from their point of view so we get an equal view into their heads and thought processes. However, there is a consistent sprinkling of chapters that are in first-person from Guy’s POV; these chapters are blog entries he wrote while studying abroad in France. What’s interesting about these is that A) they helped me at least develop a much deeper rapport with Guy and B) are laid out in reverse chronological order (latest entries appear first in the novel and the first entry appears at the end of the novel). The takeaway for me was that Guy, despite his flaws, come across as a fully formed (albeit dysfunctional) adult. Xavier, on the other hand, feels more plastic—if that is by design or accident, I can’t say but his bacon is saved by his accepting and reacting to the truth-bomb Laila drops on him.
I also found the prose well put together; no one sounded too immature or reacted inconsistently between chapters. There were some bits of French thrown in at the end that don’t have any translations (and I only studied French myself for three days before giving up because inanimate object having genders just did not compute for me) but that, too, is part of the realia of the story. Guy’s in France and not real clear on some of the things being said around him, so it stands to reason the reader wouldn’t know either. In fact, there are some points (mostly in the blog-entry chapters) where the language barrier is worked into the text, but done so subtly, it’s not immediately identifiable as a language barrier moment..but again, inclusions like that just tickle my inner bilingual because, dammit, that’s what it’s like!
One tiny little nit-picky thing in the book (and this is just because I’m a Japanese speaker) is the constant use of the word “kimono” to refer to a judo-gi. Literally speaking “kimono” (to someone who doesn’t think in Japanese language and culture, I’d wager) is “wear-thing.” In a manner of speaking, all clothes are “kimono.” Except there actually are words for the uniforms they wear in judo and it’s called a judo-gi in Japanese and American English at least. Maybe in Sweden, they call the uniforms “kimono” but I can’t fathom why…
Overall, though, this is an excellent read. It’s a well-written story about a man who seems to have his life perfectly in order discovering he’s still a work in progress because he falls in love with another man who has some major issues that he inadvertently allows to keep him from forming a connection with anyone. If you’re interesting in stories that challenge social expectations of “normal” and explore the complexities of living in foreign countries with a smattering of hot sex thrown in to keep you wondering will-they or won’t-they, this would be a great book for you.