Chris Talberman and his family — mother, father, and younger sister — have recently moved to a new town. Chris had to leave behind his school, his friends, and his boyfriend. It’s not that he minds, much. After all, they did it for Cece, so she could have a better school and therapists who were better able to handle her special needs. Cecilia, who is nine, is autistic.
It’s been six months and Chris still has no friends and no social life. His mother needs him at home every afternoon to help her take care of his sister. Her temper’s been shorter, the fights between she and his father have gotten more frequent, and Chris doesn’t mind, not really. He likes his sister! And… sometimes he has a little more patience with Cece than his mother does. It’s not like his father can help, after all. He’s always working, and when he’s not working, he’s fighting with Chris’s mother or falling asleep.
One morning Cece sees her favorite animal outside the glass walled house of their new cottage: dolphins! A pod of them have beached themselves and Chris, after getting reluctant permission frrom his mother, wanders down to take a closer look. It’s there he meets Noah, tall, blonde, and beautiful. It’s attraction, and interest, at first sight.
But Noah isn’t everything he seems to be. His father doesn’t like him having friends, Noah’s mother hovers — when she’s around at all — and Noah won’t answer questions. He’d much rather know more about Chris, instead. When Chris finds out Noah’s gay as well, what started off as an uncertain friendship becomes an uncertain… something more.
Dolphins in the Mud isn’t a romance novel, although there is a romantic relationship in it. This is, instead, a coming of age story about a young man in a difficult and achingly familiar situation. A young man who has come to define himself by his relationships to other people, rather than as a person in his own right.
Chris is a young man shouldering an unfair amount of weight on his shoulders. He’s been asked to put his life aside for his sister’s benefit, to leave everything behind and then — when they settle in a new place — to come home straight from school so he can watch his sister while his mother runds her errands. But when his mother vanishes, Chris’s world falls apart. If it weren’t for Noah giving him an excuse to leave the house, to demand a few moments for himself, he’d be stuck at home taking over his mother’s duties.
And Chris understands, he does. His mother needs time away from his sister, time she almost never has as a stay-at-home caretaker to an austistic child, but she — like his father — seem to have overlooked the fact that they have two children. It’s Noah who allows Chris to rebel a bit, to push for a little room for himself and his own needs, needs for companionship and friendship and the chance to be… just Chris.
But being with Noah has it’s own issues. Noah is… high-strung. Needy. And more than that, he’s an absolute mystery. Other children at school warn him about Noah’s father, how he doesn’t seem to want his son to have any friends, something that seems to be very true given how Jacob Silver treat Chris every time he comes to the house.
For Chris, as much as he wants a friend, needs a friend, he isn’t certain if Noah is someone he wants to spend time with, or get emotionally invested with. Noah clings, he’s desperate, anxious, and eager to please. It makes Chris uneasy. Even as he’s having doubts about Noah, his opinion of his mother has solidified and he’s finding himself forming a new relationship with his father.
It is so refreshing to see a young man and his father having a real and working relationship. One fight doesn’t settle everything, no more than it does in the real world. Chris’s father is quick to suggest therapy for both of them, together and seperately, so that Chris has time to deal with himself apart from being his sister’s keeper, even as his father badly needs his help in learning how to deal with his daughter.
Just as he has to be Cece’s advocate when their mother vanishes, so Chris’s father becomes his advocate when it comes to the situation with Noah. The relationships within this book feel so very real, and so very human. Not once does the author take the easy road and feed us a trope, like a happily ever after. A sixteen-year old shouldn’t have a happily ever after, they still have so much life ahead of them!
This is a very nice coming of age story, well-written and nicely paced. Cecilia’s autism was deftly handled; she never became a caricature or a precocious angel savant. She was a little girl who happened to have autism. There’s a saying: “Don’t put yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” This is Chris’s journey in learning to put his own fire out without casting everyone else into the cold.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.