After an accidental fire in his childhood left him disfigured, Frank grew up with few friends and fewer prospects. His best friend and first love, Renny, abruptly severs their amicable relationship in favor of vicious name calling. Local nere-do-wells take to bullying him. Frank’s closest friend and employer is the local undertaker, an immigrant named Vaughn, which does nothing to raise him in the estimation of the townsfolk. When Frank is struck by lighting one summer, everything ratchets up another notch…with the added caveat that now he’s been “gifted” with the ability to conduct jolts of electricity to the people and things around him.
Frank resigns himself to being even more of a freak. He constantly calculates where he can safely go, what he can safety touch without risking accidentally electrocuting someone or something. People have always noticed Frank, but the new behavior just makes him that much easier of a target for more of the teasing, taunting, and heartbreak. Still, if Frank knows nothing else, he knows this is his burden to bear.
Until one day, Vaughn himself drops a bombshell on Frank. Vaughn not only knows about Frank’s encounter with the lightning and the strange way his body conducts electricity, he knows of others who’ve had Franks same ‘gift.’ What’s more, Vaughn has a proposition for Frank—use that same gift to shock the life back into Vaughn’s heretofore unknown son.
Frank soon finds himself caught up in Vaughn’s machinations, buffeted by the monumental changes to his quiet, if depressing, life. The real question is whether or not Frank is willing to stop his slow slide into emotional and physical isolation and take advantage of the changes Vaughn so clearly wants to help him make.
To be perfectly clear, all I really knew about this book prior to reading it was this: the main character couldn’t be physically touched by anyone…until someone finally turns up who can touch him. I really like the idea of one character having a flaw so big, so huge—it’s more than a flaw, really—and watching how that flaw gets dismantled.
Do we get that? Most certainly—obviously, Frank ends up being able to have physical contact with people. So that little bit is a given from the get-go, but I will say everything else about this book was a delightful surprise. If I had to pick one genre for this story (beyond m/m), I’d have to go (reluctantly) with science fiction. I say this because, despite the obvious sci-fi quality of Frank being able to sometimes channel intense electrical power through his body, that seemed like just a facet of him as a character and a foregone conclusion that it would prevent him from fully participating in the human experience—but the focus of the story was on Frank and not his strange ability. In fact, even when Frank himself starts looking to sci-fi explanations, both he and I still sort of dismiss his notions as too fantastical.
Mostly, the story focuses on the attraction that springs up between Frank and Liam, once Liam recovers. Yes, Frank gives Liam a shock and Liam does slowly recover. It’s not secret both men prefer other men, though Frank cannot fathom why a hyper attractive male specimen like Liam might possibly be interested in a sexual relationship with Frank (a burn victim) for anything other than mere physical relief. I particularly enjoyed the angst of Frank trying to rebuff an adamant, amorous Liam. Frank’s feelings of not being good enough are very relatable, even if there were a few times it felt a bit like fishing.
Authors Connor and Mulder throw together emotionally charged scenes between Frank and Liam that start off innocently and peak with a titillating thrill before ebbing back towards platonic. These different emotional highs and lows are thrown together to great effect, reinforcing the idea that Frank really sees himself as unworthy and portraying Liam as very ernest and sincere. Especially with Frank, I liked how the authors used the prose to show the depth of his acceptance of his own disfigurement (as a burn victim) without having to go into great detail. Part of why I like this toned down description so much is because Frank knows and has angsted over his appearance for years (he’s 24 in the book and the fire happened when he 9 I believe)…it’s subtle but insideous and, to me at least, feels pretty genius.
For example, Vaughn has given Frank a framed photograph of Liam as Vaughn explains about his son and this is how the scene is narrated:
The Helliers’ son was the spitting image of a young Omar Shariff, and Frank couldn’t help but compare his unfavorable reflection in the glass to the image behind it.
Unfortunately, given the way Liam’s recovery is portrayed on page, I felt a bit weird reading broken, stutter-filled speech and speech impediments. At first, Liam is mostly only able to answer “yes” or “no” and there is the obligatory “Are you just answering ‘yes’ to everything” question. My quibbles are echoed in Frank’s interactions; Frank questioned just how mentally developed Liam was in the wake of his miraculous recovery. Thankfully, this doesn’t hold true for the entirety of his time on page, but it did get pretty ingrained in my mental picture of him.
There is a curious cast of supporting characters as well. Vaughn is, obviously, the most well fleshed out. His wife, Marion, and two of Frank’s former classmates round out the cast of regulars. They each play an intriguing part of the story, and even some of the fringe characters peek out at a few surprising places (just enough for the reader to see the connection without interrupting the overall prose to point out that the authors have referenced something previously mentioned).
My favorite part (apart from the phrase “vicarious tree sex”) sounds rather mundane as quoted below, but in the context of the story, I was impressed with how subtly Liam speaks to Frank after Frank has finally awoken after weeks of being unconscious following a vicious stabbing attack. (Note: Fank is a sort of pet name Liam used for Frank)
Miracles rarely come without sacrifice, Frank. Those aren’t my words. My father repeated them often to make me feel better, to remind me. I love you, Fank. Vaughn and Marion wanted to be certain you would still love me as well, that we would always love each other as much as they did. I’m sorry I have to tell you this.
Overall, this is a bittersweet story with a happy-ish ending. There are strong undercurrents of science fiction that grow more prevalent the more you read and form an integral part of the interactions between Frank, Liam, and Vaughn—pushing them to accept these fantastic ideas, to embrace them, and act on them in the name of happiness. I would recommend this story to anyone.