Rating: 4.75 stars
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Gage works for his dad’s company, looking after the emerging markets accounts. The night before he is due to leave for Sarajevo, his boyfriend, Lucas, breaks up their relationship, though honestly, Gage has never been in love with Lucas and has been unable to commit to marriage and children.
Nikola is involved in his uncle’s business, having returned to live in his home country after fourteen years in America so his mother could help him to raise his daughter, Hana. When Gage arrives at the airport, he notices the attractive man waiting at arrivals for incoming passengers, little knowing that this is Nikola, Gage’s liaison for the time of his stay.
The connection between these men is electric and it isn’t long before they are sharing their first kiss, though Gage is too drunk to remember this taking place. Soon Gage and Nikola cross the line as their business relationship becomes not only about pleasure, but fun and friendship. However, as their feelings develop and Gage is adopted by Hana as an “uncle,” the fact that Nikola is not able to be open about his sexuality drives a wedge between them, risking their chances at happiness.
C.L. Mustafic is a new-to-me author so aside from the reviews, I had no idea what to expect from Loving Sarajevo, but I was pleasantly surprised. One aspect that really stood out for me was the story’s setting. As someone who remembers the Bosnian War, I found it interesting how Mustafic builds the effect of this into the story, addressing both the physical geography and the human impact. Yet, as readers we also understand that Gage is in Sarajevo as part of the city’s regeneration, which Mustafic contrasts with the more traditional when the men visit the old town, which for Gage is “like stepping into another world.” We have to rely entirely on Mustafic’s descriptive writing to comprehend Gage’s wonder and I was immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and even the feeling of the ground beneath Gage’s feet.
The stones weren’t what you’d call cobblestone — and it was uneven and hard to walk on. In the center of the square, there was what looked like a small tower surrounded by tons of pigeons and people who were taking or posing for pictures and some — mostly children — who were feeding the birds. Ringing the square were restaurants and small stands where proprietors called out to people as they passed, while others sat having coffee near the big, outdoor propane heaters.
Loving Sarajevo is very much a character-driven novel, but I loved the fact that as part of this, the city and surrounding areas also take on a life of their own, immersing us even further into the story.
Alongside Mustafic’s geographical setting comes the culture of the country, including opinions on homosexuality. Gage is obviously American and open to his family and friends, as well as living with Lucas for two years preceding his trip to Sarajevo. Nikola has lived in America where he had a boyfriend, though Hana was born after a drunken threesome. Now back in Bosnia, Nikola is open about his sexuality to very few people, using his friend, Sabina, as public cover. It is when Gage sees Sabina and Nikola together at the New Year’s party that the troubles begin for Gage and Nikola and I really liked the fact that as readers we are aware of Nikola’s plight, but Gage is not. This launches us into one of my favorite sections of the novel: Nikola’s texts. It is during these nightly messages that Nikola opens up completely to Gage about his childhood, Hana’s birth, and his relationship with Sabina. I think I enjoyed this so much because the texts are short, but Mustafic gives us a much deeper insight into who Nikola is as a character and the way in which he is indirectly fighting to save his relationship with Gage just compounds the feeling of romance.
Generally, I avoid any story that is categorized as BDSM or erotica, but for me Mustafic makes these elements work as part of the story. This is soft BDSM with Nikola enjoying the domination role, which contrasts with how we have seen him previously as a doting father, son, and “man-sitter” for Gage. Conversely, Gage is a professional businessman who Mustafic portrays as a man in control, but who also likes to submit to his partner. The sexual roles each man plays are short-lived and the sex scenes feel organic and add substance to the story and characters.
Sometimes I can find stories that feature children problematic, but in Loving Sarajevo, Mustafic ensures that Hana’s inclusion adds emotion, humor, and extends the way we view Nikola and Gage. Gage’s instant connection with Hana is surprising when we are aware that he didn’t want children with Lucas, but her interactions with him appear to bring out a natural instinct that is sweet to witness. Ironically, although she is so young, Hana comes across as the voice of reason in Gage and Nikola’s relationship and I adored the way her “tummy” tells her things!
Loving Sarajevo was a book where I really didn’t know what to expect, but Mustafic’s writing style is absorbing and her characters are well thought out. I was slightly disappointed by the last chapter, but this did not have too much of an affect on my overall enjoyment of the novel and I would definitely recommend it!
This is not a book of which I’d heard, but it does sound good. Thanks for the review, Kirsty.