Eli Bell has grown up with a police chief inspector and a forensic scientist as parents. They have very clear ideas of right and wrong and don’t hesitate to share them with Eli, especially when it comes to his boyfriend, Rob Hawkes. Rob is tough and tattooed and muscled and has a history of fights and arrests. He looks kind of thuggish and isn’t polished or even polite most of the time. But Rob also loves Eli, treats him with care, and totally gets Eli in a way that few people do. The problem is that Eli’s parents hate Rob and are constantly picking on everything about him. And in return, Rob doesn’t much like them either. After a rough life that includes a lot of distrust and hatred of cops, Rob doesn’t have much use for Eli’s parents, especially since they give him such a hard time.
Neither Eli’s parents nor Rob are able to stop provoking one another and their constant fights are draining Eli. But he knows what he wants, and that is Rob. No one has ever loved and supported Eli the way Rob does and he is not giving him up. But Eli hopes that in keeping Rob in his life, it doesn’t lead to losing his family in return.
Ok, I’ll admit that this was one of those books that grabbed me from the cover. It just looked so hot and brooding and dirty that I was drawn in immediately. And to my delight, that description fits this story quite well. There is a grit and intensity to Rob and Eli’s interactions, not to mention a crazy heat, that I totally loved. But even better, underneath all of that is a sweet tenderness that pulls it all together so nicely.
This is a book where the title really sums things up perfectly. Or more accurately, where the title is very specifically the opposite of reality. Because this book is all about looking beneath the surface, about seeing who a person really is beyond appearances. And Matthew J. Metger does a wonderful job of capturing that theme and threading it through the book. First off we have Rob. Like I said, he is dark and brooding with huge muscles and tattoos all over. He is quite rough around the edges, easy to incite to anger, and often leads with his fists (though never against Eli). Rob has been in trouble with the law off and on with some burglary, weed dealing, and bar fights. And these things are all that Eli’s parents can see. They are worried for Eli and afraid he will get hurt and so their protectiveness turns into hatred of Rob.
I love how Metzger opens the story with Eli watching Rob sleep. He is thinking to himself all the things he loves about Rob, how attractive he finds Rob, and how wonderful he thinks Rob is. It gives us a chance right from the start to set up that contrast between the Rob that Eli knows, and the man that everyone else sees. Over the course of the story we get to learn that there is so much more to Rob than the surface. He loves Eli and looks out for him. And even more, Rob accepts Eli, has from the very beginning. Eli knows there are not many gay men who will accept a trans partner, and he was terrified to tell Rob. But Rob accepted him immediately, in a way that few other people do, including Eli’s parents. Rob is also making a clear effort to clean himself up for Eli, trying harder to stay out of fights and on the right side of the law. But at the same time, Rob is still far from perfect. Eli doesn’t quite know where Rob gets all his money, but he isn’t foolish enough to think it is all from legal means. And Rob is still so quick to temper, so easily provoked, especially by the cops. So I loved that he isn’t perfect, that this isn’t a case of people totally misjudging Rob, but of needing to see beyond the first layer to the man that he really is inside.
The conflict between Rob and Eli’s parents is really what carries the plot of the story. Surprisingly, for a long book, the story never drags, even with this fairly basic conflict at the core. We see how much it hurts Eli to always have everyone he loves at odds with one another. And we see the kernel of vulnerability in Rob for having to face people who are constantly deriding him, at the same time as he can’t stop himself from mouthing off at them. I wish that it hadn’t taken something so dramatic for things to resolve between them all, but I do like the way the story ends up.
The other main way this theme of looking below the surface plays out is with Eli himself. This one is pretty on point with regard to Eli and the fact that while he may have appeared female on the outside, on the inside he is a man. Eli’s parents have never shown him full understanding or acceptance for being trans. He has partially physically transitioned (top surgery, testosterone injections) and his parents, particularly his dad, remained removed from the process and never made him feel like they fully have accepted him as a man. So Eli never expected to find love, let alone a man who stares at him like he wants to jump him at every moment. And Rob gives him that. Not only a crazy intense attraction, but just a complete acceptance of who Eli is. It doesn’t matter if Rob doesn’t always understand what motivates Eli, he still accepts and supports him totally. My one niggle here is that at times it feels the tiniest bit like Eli’s affection for Rob is too much based on appreciation of Rob’s acceptance of him. But I loved that we see this man who on the surface is just a thug and find that he is the one who gives Eli just unconditional support and love and makes him feel good about himself in a way no one else can.
So back to the cover, yes, this story is as gritty as it looks. I already mentioned that Rob is rough around the edges, but the sexual connection between the men is often rough and hard and aggressive as well. Both men have a bit of kink side and there are some BDSM elements here to their sexual relationship. These guys are not gentle with one another in bed, at least not often, and there is a crazy heat and intensity between them that I just loved. Seriously, these guys are gritty and just on fire together.
Overall I really loved this one. I loved the theme of looking below the surface and seeing the person inside. Metzger does a great job of carrying that through the book in a variety of ways. I just loved Rob and Eli together. I appreciated that these guys who wouldn’t seem to work totally do, and it was wonderful to see how much strength and confidence Rob gives Eli. This one is sexy and surprisingly romantic given Rob’s temperament. If you are looking for a story with a sexy, intense, and definite bad boy that has a lot of heat, grit, and love, then definitely give What It Looks Like a try.