Since time immemorial, competition has been in Reed Watson’s blood, his bones, his very breath. There is nothing Reed can’t, or won’t, approach as something to win. From the fourth grade spell-off to all the various and sundry extracurriculars in junior and senior high school, Reed participates in as many activities as he can. And Reed is good—he has a wall full of plastic gold medals to prove it. Unfortunately, as Reed settles into being an upperclassman in high school, his family’s pocketbook demands that they all make some cutbacks. For Reed, that means narrowing his after school activities from five, six, or seven down to just one. He goes with swimming.
Being in the water is as electrifying for Reed as it is sensual. He takes to his new sport immediately and the feeling is hyper amplified when he bumps into former classmate and formerly socially awkward Matthias Webber at a swim meet. Matthias is no longer Reed’s classmate and definitely no longer socially awkward if Reed’s any judge of the way he interacts with his team. Matthias is also all but grown up and looking very, very fine.
When a local swimming coach pegs them both as Olympic material, they begin training together. Reed’s sheer competitive nature and Matthias’ sheer talent will serve them both well. Their coach, however, has no compunctions about using the intense sexual tension between them to up the ante. Constantly frustrated at being unable to act on their mutual attraction beyond anything more than a kiss, Reed and Matthias embark on a rocky road to the Olympics.
Despite spending long days training in the pool together, the two childhood friends grow further and further apart. Reed focuses more and more on his skill in the pool while Matthias focuses on cultivating his public persona as an out-and-proud gay athlete. Coach’s insistence that sexual tension will increase performance is put to the test when Matthias gives up the small-town coaching for a training regime with the elites across the country.
Both Matthias and Reed are Olympic caliber swimmers…and that tension always returns every time they run into each other at a meet. Never mind the days, weeks, or months between, the emotions always run high. Can their undeniable attraction to each other help them overcome their own insecurities, or will the succumb to the pressures of the circuit to salvage their careers?
To be perfectly honest, I was completely turned off by Reed and his utterly dickish competitiveness during the opening chapters of this book. Everything he did and said just reinforced this idea that Reed was…well…an unrepentant dick. I was gearing up for a long slog. Then, Reed’s little brother Devon was introduced—a character who has what seemed like mild Down syndrome. Reed never really stops being hyper competitive, but his interactions with Devon really helped flesh the guy out. Later on, his father also serves as a good counterpoint to Reed as well, calling Reed on his bullshit.
Matthias, as a character, was less easy to get into. He has instant appeal because our narrator (Reed) is obviously drawn to him. By the same token, the reader is susceptible to the same reactions as Reed when it comes to the kind of bullshit Matthias pulls. For example, Matthias has attachment/abandonment issues. He makes it clear that he is very much into Reed, but if Reed’s not ready for/allowed to have a sexual relationship, then Matthias is willing to experiment with others until Reed is ready/allowed. Reed is clearly disappointed and turned off by Matthias’ line of thought.
Indeed, once Matthias and Reed are separated (Matthias to AZ and Reed staying in NY), the reader is treated to several scenes where they come back together…get super close to finding a resolution…only to have some baggage come up and spoil things. First was Matthias’ admission that he was willing to “wait” for Reed but “sow wild oats” in the meantime. Later on, as Reed struggled to be the mostly well-adjusted, socially competent guy he normally is during an interview following a big win, Matthias blurts out that he is gay (to take the hard limelight off Reed…maybe?). This leads to instant notoriety for Matthias and damages the relationship between the two of them when Reed feels like, during those rare times when the two of them are actually in the same place at the same time, Matthias blows him off without so much as a by-your-leave to chase stardom.
One of the biggest themes in the book is also money. Reed has none and Matthias is rolling in it. I enjoyed reading how money and the lack thereof affected the dynamic between the two. One pivotal scene is close to the Olympic qualifiers. Matthias has surprised Reed with a cross-country, middle of the night visit. They have some intense conversation that I found very poignant for our main characters, emotionally messy, but essential for them to figure out if they were going to have a future. When a sponsorship bomb gets dropped on Reed, he’s once again forced to reevaluate what he means to Matthias and what Matthias means to him.
This is a book that undeniably focuses on competitive swimming, but that doesn’t make even the meet-based scenes inaccessible for the average reader. In fact, I thought there was precious little actual swim meet on-page—which stands to reason, I suppose. Athletes spend years in training for moments on the competition stage. I will say this: the blurb and as I read the book itself, I was on tenterhooks waiting to find out who was going to the Olympics. Even the Olympic qualifiers scene left me breathless with anticipation…and a sweet sort of resignation followed closely by blissful closure.
Aside from the romance drama between Matthias and Reed, there is also an on-going friendship arc between Reed and his best friend and sometimes sexual partner Cal and their mutual friend (and later Cal’s girlfriend) Caryn. The dynamic here was also totally enjoyable to read. It provided a nice contrast from Reed’s family side and turbulent love life. Yet the friendships were not without heartache, which was wonderfully incorporated throughout the text. The authors did a fabulous job weaving these supporting characters meaningfully into the story at all stages and provided a bit of a reality check about what you expect versus what you get in life.
On the whole, this was a fantastic read. I would recommend this to anyone interested in a coming of age story with a sports hook. The themes it covers extend far beyond competition and you truly get to see Reed grow and develop, yet are left with a sense that his story is just beginning, even at the end of the book.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.