Robert lost his partner and love of his life, whom he cared for through the latter stages of AIDS in the 1980s. Twenty-four years later, it is Christmas again and Robert is still living in the penthouse apartment left to him by Keith and is financially wealthy. Only now, Robert has a younger partner, Ethan, who unbeknownst to the older man is addicted to the latest designer drug and visiting bathhouses to have sex with countless numbers of strangers through his high.
On this Christmas night, when Ethan leaves to visit his drug dealer, Robert decides to walk along the shore of Lake Michigan, only to come across a young woman who is about to commit suicide. Robert talks her out of it, offering her a shoulder to cry on and the warmth of his apartment.
Jess leaves on hearing Ethan and Robert arguing, but feeling pulled back to Robert because of a dream, she visits him the next day. The connection between them only intensifies after Jess’ next dream and while Robert’s relationship with the young lesbian woman grows stronger, Ethan is rapidly falling apart and considering drastic measures to resolve his issues.
Orientation is like a jigsaw puzzle that begins with the pieces jumbled up in a box. Rick R. Reed gives his readers the foundations of the story, like the jigsaw’s corners and edges, and then slowly the picture comes into focus with a race for the end. We begin wondering about how Robert, Ethan, Jess, and the ghost of Keith can possibly fit together and the build-up of Orientation is slow, with Reed concentrating upon establishing his characters and their motives. I certainly admired Robert for his commitment to Keith, particularly the way in which he cared for him, but I wanted to shake Robert for his stupidity about Ethan. There are many instances in the book in which Robert considers confronting Ethan and he thinks “I should say . . . ” but usually this ends with his peacekeeping. Unfortunately for him, this actually seems like acquiescence and Robert is suspicious, but he chooses to be ignorant of the fact he is encouraging Ethan’s behavior. This is a complex matter though, and I do not think that Reed wishes his reader to condemn Robert for these actions. Instead, the insight that Reed gives his reader allows us to understand Robert’s neediness.
Orientation is a novel filled with light and dark. If Robert, with the abundance of love he has to offer, and Jess with her concern and openness, are the light then Ethan’s greed, excess, and narcissism represent the darkness. Not only that, but death haunts this story. Robert has become consumed by his grief after losing Keith; Ethan does not realize how close he is to the end of his life, but Robert’s death becomes his obsession; Robert and Jess meet as she is contemplating her own death, but in reality, she becomes Robert’s savior. However, Orientation is not a depressing novel because of this subject matter. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Reed cleverly combines this harsh reality with paranormal elements and I think Robert’s new connection with both Jess and Keith means I found the story heartening and comforting.
I think Reed could have easily neatly tied a bow in the relationship between Jess and Robert and given them a fairy-tale ending, ignoring the fact that he is a homosexual and she is a lesbian. This would have cheated the reader though, and I respect Reed for staying true to his characters and this does not mean that the events which take place between them are any less satisfying.
Orientation does not fit neatly into the male/male romance genre. There are no intimate love-making scenes between the protagonists, exchanging of declarations of love, or proposals. Reed’s novel deals with love in its purest form and the pain that comes when that person is lost forever. For me, this is one of the aspects that makes Reed’s novels such a pleasure to read. I find the way in which he constantly thinks outside the box intriguing and challenging, and Orientation is no exception.
I cannot do Orientation justice within a review, but Reed manages to deliver excellent writing, a cleverly constructed plot, tension, unease, hope, and love. For me, this is perfection!