When Joel was still in high school, his entire world was shattered. While reading a sext from Joel, his boyfriend, Diego, died in car accident. Neither of their parents knew they were gay and the local paper outed them as Joel’s world spun out of control. His parents had a difficult time with Joel being gay and they subsequently divorced, and Diego’s parents blamed Joel for everything. Trying to outrun the events, Joel changed his name and tried to start fresh in college in Oklahoma. But Diego is always with him and the guilt that Joel carries is intense and smothering. He tries to drown the noise in his head with anonymous hook-ups, refuses to let anyone in, and even his roommate doesn’t know the truth.
Joel doesn’t plan on Paulie. Paulie who is sweet and kind and gorgeous and flamboyant and is the opposite of Diego. He also doesn’t count on the events of the crash and its aftermath being used as a case study in one of his classes. It’s Paulie that comes to his rescue and it’s Paulie that Joel grows to love and it’s Paulie that feels like home.
But Joel hasn’t told Paulie who he really is and as his feelings for Paulie grow more intense, Joel has no idea how to love Paulie while still keeping Diego’s memory alive. Paulie is ready to give Joel anything he wants, everything he wants, but Joel has to make peace with his past before Paulie walks away for good.
This book interested me because this was a case of art imitating life. The odds may sound astronomical that of all the articles out there, the one about Joel was presented in his class. A similar incident, although with entirely different circumstances to Joel’s situation, happened to me as a case was presented in a college class where I knew the victim. The case itself and the classroom time works mainly as the catalyst here as this is a highly focused, character driven book and Joel’s journey.
When we meet Joel, it’s three years after the accident that claimed Diego’s life. Diego was his best friend and they had plans of going to college together and playing baseball and it was all wiped out. Everything was exposed that was never intended for public consumption and Joel’s family crumbled under the pressure. Joel was left on his own a lot after this incredibly traumatic event as his parents offered little support to no support and his father walked out.
The main component of the story however, is Joel’s relationship with Paulie and what a great character Paulie is. Paulie was disowned by his religious family for being gay and carries his own pain. He’s effeminate and gorgeous and flirty, but can take charge when needed. And Joel certainly needs that. Their relationship is sweet tenderness, but is also hesitant and tentative because Joel is hiding even in plain sight. They fall in love, but Joel can’t and won’t admit it because he is completely wrecked all of the way through and he can’t tell Paulie that he loves him because Joel offers no truth between them. But the way Joel sees Paulie is so well written and their relationship has an emotional flow to it that makes the story.
The book is a single point of view told through Joel, but Joel sees Paulie and Paulie is so dynamic he comes through so clearly without us having to be directly in his head. The guys communicate mostly in the bedroom as Joel tries to show Paulie with his body what he is afraid to put into words and the intimate scenes are exposed and revealing while being heated and serve to move the characters and their relationship along. The men together are uniquely and emotionally written that further makes them compelling and heartbreaking as things start to unravel. The book also has a fabulous sense of place and scenery that lives through both characters.
The case study in school was the one area that lost the thread for me by the end of the book. It sets off the story and is referred to at a later time, but then is completely dropped by the end. As a reviewer, I will mention that while there is no cheating in the book, the guys are with other people at select times. It works for the story being told and added yet another layer of sadness and heartbreak. But, if that’s not something you as a reader can handle, you can be aware before going in.
Controlled Burn is a debut book from the author and offered the visual cadence and flow of words that appeals to me. Even though the guys were in college and had many issues between them, I believed in them. It was difficult to move on from the atmosphere of this book and it does seem like the author may have been setting up a story for Joel’s roommate, Travis, and I would look forward to being in this world once again.