After running away from an emotionally abusive and manipulative family life, Jeb Birchman needed a way to survive. His good looks and desperation made him an easy target for a pimp named Wally to take vicious advantage. Despite the hard times, Jeb never lost hope. Years of being pushed around paid off when Jeb snatched a narrow window between jobs in which to flee. Escape wasn’t smooth and the physical fight for freedom left him permanently deaf, but still…he was free.
Jeb’s next stop was only a step up, being the live-in call boy for a sexually abusive political named Nolan. The connection Jeb forges with Max, Nolan’s only son, helps make the brutal sex parties bearable. Until Nolan throws Jeb out for being too old at twenty-two. Jeb is reluctant to leave Max entirely alone with his depraved father, but he’s not sure Nolan’s debauchery would extend quite that far…nor does Jeb have much of a choice. As a parting gift—and to ensure Jeb’s silence—Nolan agrees to pay for Jeb’s college education.
University is a whole new, more-or-less wholesome world for Jeb. For one thing, he revels in being mostly free from Nolan. For another, he finally gets a chance to taste the kind of life any other twenty-something young adult would take for granted. When he is approached by a super hot student in the university bookstore, Jeb is tempted to tamp down on the desire to make friends. But the boy is persistent…and so attractive it’s hard for Jeb to stay away, even as he fears his dark past will prove too much of a barrier for the guy to stick around.
Freddy Williams grew up CODA—Child Of Deaf Adults. He knows all about the culture and grew up speaking American Sign Language. When his first attempt at making conversation with the extraordinarily good looking guy at the bookstore is literally stonewalled, he thinks the guy is full of himself. Until a buddy points out the guy may just be deaf and didn’t hear Freddy’s attempt at conversation. Giving the guy a second chance was the best decision Freddy ever made. He is instantly attracted to the guy, who says his name is Jeb.
As Freddy teaches Jeb the ins-and-outs of surviving as a Deaf student on campus, the sparks begin to fly. The electric zing is mutual and they find it hard to pace themselves. Even when the ugly truth about Jeb’s past comes to light, Freddy is able to set aside the hurt and anger at anyone who would abuse such a brilliant person as Jeb to focus on the good in Jeb.
The past, however, isn’t done with Jeb by a long shot. Nolan’s offer of free tuition comes with some hefty strings that Jeb thought he could pay. When it turns out Jeb is unable to continue being a sexual subservient, Nolan turns on his own family. And when the story is broken, a media frenzy leads to Nolan’s past being splashed all over. With the rumor mill working over time at the campus, tensions mount between Jeb and Freddy. With Max thrown into the mix, it get ever harder for Jeb to see a way for everyone—or even anything—to work out remotely well. Things take a turn for the worst when Jeb’s old pimp comes back to town. But can police protection really keep Jeb and Max safe from Nolan’s seemingly endless power?
If you couldn’t tell from this lengthy description there is…a lot going on in this book. I’ve hit almost all the major points in the plot, save the machinations that lead to the climax and lead into the end of the story. With so much going on, it should have been easy to flip through page after page of sleeper-thriller like scenes peppered with angst and a hint of actual danger. Instead, I ended up languishing as I read this for one big reason: the characters emphatically do not fit into the world Brightly has given them.
For one thing, I viewed our trio of main characters as more-or-less children.
Freddy, aka Guy Average With Anger Issues.
He is definitely portrayed as the alpha-male type. I suppose this is reinforced by his short-temper and his possessiveness of Jeb. That said, the “short-temper” means he has to give himself time-outs when he gets angry, otherwise he will literally throw a tantrum, complete with shoving people around and yelling at them. He’s also almost entirely financially dependent on his parents. Taken together, I don’t see him as the kind of capable, competent person who’s ready and able to live independently. With his boyfriend. And his boyfriends “adopted” son.
I found him to be mildly annoying, mostly because he’s just there to enhance the others’ storylines without actually being interesting in his own right. Freddy views him as a sort of foil, someone Freddy has to win over in order to secure Jeb’s affections for himself. Max is used to show us Jeb’s an all around good guy, and not just for the sake of his boyfriend. And Max is used to highlight just how much of a douche canoe Nolan is. His has one shining “we needed him in this book” heroic moment. Other than that, he’s just taking up space.
Jeb, Sexy Damaged Goods.
I’m not even sure where to begin with Jeb. He’s a guy who just cannot catch a break and if it weren’t for him and all his damn baggage, there would be zero story. I didn’t mind that he was such a worry wort about everything…given his background, he’s probably right to be on edge. I can also see how his hard-knocks experiences leave him not just unprepared for life at college and adulting in general, but unable or just unaware that he has the right to ask for help. That said, he is sort of a magnet for bad juju and you can just feel him losing his ability to cope when it all the shit starts hitting the fan. Of the three, I liked him the best. He proved to be a strong-willed character, even if he was sometimes bull-headed.
As individual characters, there’s so much potential! If you pick up this book, however, I think you will understand how unlikely it is that these particular characters would make through this gauntlet of danger as they have. Instead of focusing the action around Freddy learning to control his anger like a damn adult and Jeb coming to terms with his baggage, there is thing after thing after thing after thing. There is only so much disbelief I am willing to suspend before everything starts feeling incredibly contrived. Especially when we are constrained in our modern, contemporary world. Especially when Freddy—a college senior who’s never known a day of independence in his life—is willing to upend everything to be with Jeb. And by “everything,” that includes his own life and identity.
Finally…the deafness. As someone who speaks another language, I appreciated Freddy’s explanation to Jeb that ASL isn’t just plain old English “spoken” with your hands, but a whole different language. That was one shining moment where I felt I could connect to Freddy. That concept that another language sounds perfectly natural IN that language, but if you’re just starting out learning that other language, it feels jilted or like it’s not really language. Jeb’s interaction with his own deafness was interesting as well. Not having been born deaf and living the mean life he’d been living, it seems reasonable to me that he’d resist learning ASL when no one around him uses it (so he can’t learn). That said, I was a bit put out by how much he resists learning ASL when Freddy tries to teach him (or the idea that 15-year-old Max just picks it right up and Freddy says younger kids pick language up faster…*generally*, the window on that kind of natural language acquisition closes well before 15.)
Overall, the two main elements of this book just clashed far too much for me to get into the story. I liked the premise of CODA Freddy making a connection with Jeb, who was made deaf by vicious people in his past. But the never-ending barrage of plot induced far more eye rolls than excitement. If you’re hankering for something way over the top with interesting characters, you still might enjoy this.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.