Both Ed and Joe are hard working and practical to a fault. It serves them well in their careers as an auto mechanic and part-time farm hand respectively. This shared sense of utilitarianism has also formed the base of their two and a half year-old relationship. Ed and Joe may cohabit, share domestic duties, and take turns enduring being the bottom when it comes to sex, but they draw the line at demonstrative affection. Despite both men being wary of letting their hearts get invested in their relationship, a tender gesture slips by every once in a great while. Each time it does, both Ed and Joe pause and marvel at how good it feels to receive and to offer such emotional connections…at least until habit has them trying to bury their desire for affection before the other can notice.
The first real test to the strength of their relationship comes when Ed learns his father has just died—a stunning revelation considering Ed’s mother maintained the fiction that Ed’s father passed away before Ed was even born. On top of the shock of familial betrayal, Ed learns a lot about his father and the least of it is probably that Ed is now sole owner of his deceased father’s farm. Part of Ed wants nothing more than to whisk Joe away to the farm and start a new chapter in their lives, working together on a farm they would share equally. But part of Ed is also afraid this is exactly the kind of commitment that would send Joe running for the hills.
When Joe finds out about Ed’s father and the inheritance, he is both saddened Ed never knew his father had been alive and surprised at the fortuitous opportunity to work on a farm full time. As a farm boy born and bred, Joe has no problems with the intense labor and lets Ed know he’s all the way in. Yet when Ed takes things a step further by offering them a joint bank account to manage the farm expenses and even half of the estate itself, Joe is taken aback. Joe never expected to get half of Ed’s possessions…yet when Ed couches it in terms of sharing with a “partner,” Joe admits he really likes the sound of that.
In a classic case of assuming too much and knowing too little about what his partner wants out of their relationship, Ed and Joe go on a journey of discovering how much deeper and more fulfilling a relationship as true partners and equals can be. Everything promises to be great…except for the one local who seems to have a problem with gay men and makes no bones about acting on it. When a hate attack goes awry, Ed and Joe have to think and act fast to save their farm, their lives, and the newly found, demonstrative passion for one another.
Speaking in gross generalities, I was disappointed at how this story was less “extra” (as the kids say these days) that the other Albright stories I’ve read. As you may have picked up in the opening paragraphs of my summary, Ed and Joe are pretty indistinguishable. I’m not even sure what they really looked like for almost the entire book—which is not necessarily a problem, but when the characters lack character, then I find it nice to fall back on bland descriptors like “the hot, short one” or “the scrappy, mean one” or something. The characterization did not improve with the passing of the unimaginatively named chapters, either.
Despite this cookie-cutter quality, the biggest thing that keep Ed and Joe’s story worth turning the pages is their mutual discovery that they are actually in love with one another. I enjoyed watching each of them angst of those first few displays of emotion where they feared such a showing would be a huge turn off to their partner. I enjoyed hearing their inner monologues as they balk at the way they let their emotions come to the surface, then revel in how good it feels (you know, to be the one offering comfort when the other is hurt, to be the one getting a shoulder to cry on when it all gets to be too much, etc.). It is a bit odd that they’ve gone two and a half years without ANY real tests to their relationship, but I suppose the shock of Ed’s not-dead father dying sets up a plausible conflict to challenge the status quo between Ed and Joe. The one true criticism among this angst fest is that both Ed and Joe go through his same change, with the same struggles of overcoming strong-and-silent-bury-the-emotions-deep-man-itis.
So the characters were somewhat lackluster and their both on identical emotional journeys…but there’s still the plot! Cultivating Love has what I think is a very utilitarian plot. As I read the first few chapters, I realized Ed and Joe were going to be nonstarters and focused on the plot having some of that Albright magic I remembered from earlier books. Surely there was some situation that would provide a book’s worth of tension or some set up that would have me on tenter hooks waiting for the right combination of events to happen and let some great angst-filled climax come to pass! Yet here, too, I was let down. Instead of a carefully planned and meted out plot with even just a single unifying thing (like thinking one’s lover died in a plane crash and finally moving on after 5 years of mourning only to discover one’s lover had survived like in ’Til Death Do Us Part)…it felt like all the events happening in the book were happening in real time and almost as they occurred to the author. Where was the foreshadowing? Where were the flashbacks? Why were the red herrings resolved immediately?
There are a few token things that punch up the plot. The biggest, most obvious one is the local guy who drinks hatorade for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He’s featured at several points in the story and serves to provide tension as Ed and Joe settle at the farm. In retrospect, this is the one element of the story that recalls any of the thoughtful plot devices, twists, and cliffhangers I have usually associated with Albright’s work. I also can appreciate how Ed’s father’s widower serves as a red herring for a hot second, but it gets resolved so quickly, there wasn’t really a chance to savor the drama bomb that could have been.
Even with the somewhat lackluster characters in a plodding plot, I still eked out some enjoyment watching Ed and Joe struggle against really falling in love with one another. I really enjoyed that we are privy to sexy times between the two—failing deeply developed and interesting characters, I am down for seeing ‘em get it on. I also wanted to mention Joe’s family. Here, too, there is a lot that is sort of hit-or-miss, but I did like seeing Joe go from being estranged from his father (who had called his son a “cocksucker” when Joe came out, prompting Joe to runaway and never look back) to rebuilding that relationship.
Overall, not the strongest piece by Albright in my opinion, but it still has it’s redeeming points—namely the unfolding of a real relationship between Ed and Joe.