Narrator: Daan Stone
Length: 10 hours, 43 minutes
Henry Normand is a professor who teaches a class to student interns at the museum where he works. At the start of the semester, Henry is drawn immediately by one particular student, Ruben Harper. Ruben is so magnetic, he just draws everyone’s attention, including Henry’s. Over the course of the year, Henry finds himself increasingly interested in the young man, especially as Ruben makes it clear with his stares and his attention that he is also interested in Henry. And at the end of the year, as Ruben finishes the course, he makes his intentions toward Henry completely clear.
Ruben and Henry finally get their date, and then one magical weekend together. Ruben’s energy and way of looking at life really impact Henry and his views on his own life. The men connect in a deep and meaningful way, and Henry can imagine what a real relationship with Ruben might be like. But Ruben is in a totally different place in his life than Henry; he is about to start college, he is just coming out, and is not ready for a serious relationship. And at this point in his life, Henry is not looking for anything but a connection that could lead to something more. Their weekend is wonderful, but also bittersweet as the men know this will be both the start and the end of things between them.
As Ruben heads off to college, Henry takes the spark he got from his time with Ruben to begin writing. He focuses on “everyday history,” the story of everyday objects and their meaning in people’s lives. Henry’s newspaper articles turn into a book deal, television show, and fame he never anticipated. He has a chance to really connect with people and make a difference in their lives through his everyday history programs. But no matter how much success he has, and how hard Henry tries, he just can’t get Ruben out of his head.
For Ruben’s part, he comes out and begins to explore life as a gay man. Ruben’s instinct is to try everything, date a lot, and learn about himself. But at the end he realizes that his heart still belongs to Henry. And now that he has had a chance to experiment and grow a little, Ruben wants Henry back. But getting in touch with the technophobic Henry is not easy, especially as he grows more famous and travels the country for his work. Now Ruben must figure out how to reconnect with the man he loves, and hope that Henry still wants him when they are finally reunited.
Everyday History is a book not quite like anything I have read in the genre. It is a story I felt deeply and quite strongly in many ways, and at the same time one that had some issues for me as well.
First off, I have to say I am blown away by what Archer has managed to do with the everyday history idea. It is fascinating and quite moving and Archer has really created something special here. Henry begins writing a column about everyday history, and later gives lectures and makes various other appearances focused on the topic. His writing and speeches are eloquent and incredibly interesting and the idea of the way everyday objects can reveal things about ourselves, as well as bring connections between people, is very well done. What impresses me most is that Archer doesn’t just refer to Henry’s speeches and articles but, in fact, includes many of them in the book. That means Archer didn’t just have to conceive of the idea, but also write these incredibly eloquent installments. So for those alone, this book is worth reading.
There is also a lovely sense of romance here, sort of an epic love between Henry and Ruben. The way they feel about one another is palpable and you can’t help but root for them to be together. They are both great people, kind and caring and thoughtful and there is pretty much nothing to dislike about either of them. Even their breakup is handled maturely; these men want each other, but know they can’t make a relationship work right now and they handle themselves graciously even as they are sad to part.
So the writing is great and the romance is warm, but I will admit there were some areas with problems for me as well. First off, the pacing of this story felt way off to me. These guys are apart for the vast majority of the book. They split after their initial weekend together and we spend the entire rest of the story waiting for them to reunite. While I was interested in what each man was doing separately, I also felt like it took forever for them to get back together and so much of their stories happen totally independently of one another. There is a point where it becomes clear exactly when the men will reunite, and at that point, I was somewhat frustrated knowing how long I had to wait.
This leads to the second issue, which is as much as I loved the dreamy sense of romance between Henry and Ruben, I had an incredibly hard time believing that these guys fell this hard, this fast for one another and were able to sustain those feelings for the long time they were apart. Basically they meet while student and teacher, so while acquainted (and certainly somewhat lust filled), they have no actual romantic relationship, or even friendship at that point. Then the guys go on one aborted date, and then spend a weekend together about six weeks later, and that is it. They literally don’t talk to each other for years. So I found myself vacillating between the sweet romantic sighs, and then wondering how these men could possibly be this intensely in love, this committed to one another, after virtually no time together at all. It made the book feel unbelievable at times as the depth of their commitment often seemed far fetched.
The story is told in alternating POVs, but this is still mostly Henry’s story, which is obvious right away as he is narrated in first person present, while Ruben is in third person. I found Henry an incredibly interesting character, so following his journey is no hardship. We see him get his spark after spending time with Ruben, and watch him rise to fame, along with the good and bad that comes with it. There are a few things that are just a wee bit too convenient in terms of events that stop him from coming out, as well as why it is so difficult for Ruben to ultimately reach him, but I enjoyed his journey very much. As for Ruben, I feel like he gets more superficial treatment as his story is mostly him pining for Henry and trying to get back to him. Ruben is a freshman in college as they separate, but we barely touch on his life, his classes, or anything that happens to him that doesn’t revolve in some way around Henry. So I would have liked more of a sense of his story if we are going to be keeping these guys apart for so long. I’ll also add that Ruben is almost absurdly mature and to me felt in no way like an 18-year old. The men have a substantial age gap that is never really addressed, but I found myself often questioning Ruben’s intense maturity as he navigates his relationship and interactions.
I listened to this in audio, and I’ll admit here, this was almost a DNF for me after the first hour. I am very glad I kept going, as I ended up enjoying the book a lot. But this story was quite hard to get into at the start, and I think that is largely because of how the format comes through in audio. This has nothing to do with narrator Daan Stone’s performance, and everything to do with the structure of the book itself. The story is divided into parts of varying lengths that cover varying periods of time. Then there are chapters, and then sections within the chapters where the POVs change. Each part starts with a part number and a time frame. Each chapter starts with some lead in text that identifies “The Historian” and “The Explorer” (Henry and Ruben respectively) and some sort of cryptic note about what is happening. For example, here is the start of Part II:
Part II | The Evening
The Historian | Opening the Door
The Explorer | Closing the Door
The Explorer | Closing the Door
LATE AUGUST | BOSTON
Each time there is a POV change, we also get a similar, shorter version of this type of header. For example, later in that chapter, the words “The Historian | Opening the Door” start the POV section change, and then it goes back and forth between that and “The Explorer | Closing the Door” as the POV swaps. In the start of the book, in particular, there are a lot of changes of part, chapter, and section, so the story is constantly is interrupted by the narrator reciting these introductions that honestly made little sense to me just hearing them versus seeing them on page. I had no idea what they were supposed to mean, and the frequent interruptions to the narrative left me lost and unable to really settle into the story (FWIW, Audible lists this book as having over 100 “chapters,” which I think are actually the POV changes, but it gives you an idea of the volume here). As the book went on, I got both more used to the pattern and the breaks in the story happened less often. But this is a case where reading this in book form would have been a LOT easier. First off, because I could have seen the formatting and understood better what was being communicated, but also because I could have skimmed through these introductions in a way you can’t do listening to audio. So I found this a challenging book to listen to.
Aside from that, I think Stone does a nice job with the audio. His voice is easy to listen to and his tone is spot on for this story. He gets the calm, steadiness that is built into this book and his voice feels just perfect for the story. While he has nice inflection, Stone does not change voices for the different characters or the narrative. But I do think his narration is solid and works really well for this book. So my concerns about this audio are not at all with the narration, but more with the fact that this book has some challenges in adapting for audio format. I would not hesitate to listen to Stone’s narration again.
So this is a really interesting review for me because while I had some significant issues with the book and the audio, I also really feel strongly about it. Just looking at the cover gives me a little pang in my heart. There is something about this story that just drew me in intensely, and even as I was frustrated or questioning the characters at times, I still finished the book feeling really moved. I think this story is better suited to reading, or at least to having a basic familiarity with the structure going in to the audio. But I did find it a really lovely story and one that I think many readers would enjoy.
P.S. For an additional opinion, check out Kenna’s review of the book
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.