Joel is half Portuguese and spent many of his formative years and his early teens growing up along the beaches of southern Portugal. There, he met another boy named David who soon became his best friend. Joel’s parents, however, decided to return to New York where Joel grew into a man and started on a career in early childhood education. Joel always meant to get back to Portugal, but it isn’t until his parents die in an accident that he finds the time to make the journey. Seeing his grandparents, great grandmother, and his old friend David brings back a rush of emotions and a strong sense of belonging. He is immediately drawn back into David’s bottomless brown eyes.
The last summer David spent with Joel as a teenager ended in the most bittersweet way—a gentle press of their lips under the bright Portuguese sun. While David never forgot that kiss, nor the emotions that Joel stirred within in, David never thought to pursue a romantic relationship with another man. Not only would anyone else pale in comparison to Joel, David feels like he cannot be his true self when he knows it would hurt his aunt and enrage his uncle—the last living family David has. Seeing Joel again goes a long way towards assuaging David’s longing…until he realizes that Joel is gay and single.
While their attraction is almost instantaneous, they take their time cultivating a relationship. Joel, after all, has recently lost his parents and has built a life for himself in New York. David, on the other hand, isn’t out of the closet and needs to wade through that emotional quagmire before he could be with anyone—even Joel. They have the perfect distraction however: a scrapbook Joel and David’s mothers put together when they were schoolgirls. With this diary as a guide, David and Joel retrace some of the steps their own mothers took and discover the depth of their feelings for one another. A smoldering attraction ignites into a week of passion that has David and Joel both wondering how much they would sacrifice to keep the other half of their soul.
Despite an intense week of travel filled with memories and discoveries on the road and between the sheets, real life encroaches once Joel and David return from the trip. A night of fun leads to threat to David and a situation that could put his relationship with Joel in jeopardy.
I’ll admit, I was surprised by this book. In my mind, I started this book thinking it would be this sweet and tender goody-goody kind of story. The first few chapters do read kind of saccharine sweet, laced with a fair share of melancholy. In New York, Joel’s family basically adopts a friend/neighbor who gets kicked out of his house for being gay. Joel and David’s moms are besties and have a cutesy journal they kept together. David and Joel are buddy-buddy and it’s like instalove when they see each other after Joel comes back to scatter his parents’ ashes. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect to be treated to Joel and David being intimate with each other, but the fact that they basically shag like rabbits every night of their days-long road trip that caught me by surprise.
This would be a great beach read, not just because the Portuguese beach figures so prominently in it. There is also a strong sense of nostalgia for me because the characters themselves relive some of their childhood memories, and we have little snippets of their youthful beach days on summer vacation. I enjoyed having their childhood relationship established, then watching them dance around their mutual, but undeclared, attraction.
As far as the romance goes, there are two big things that keep the tension high. First, Joel is only in Portugal for a visit because his parents died. This builds in a sense of emergency—act fast or don’t act at all. But it also means there are constant fears that whatever might happen between Joel and David may be easily dashed if/when Joel goes back to New York. Second is the fact that David isn’t out of the closet. Personally, I found the David-in-the-closet thread more angsty because while he and Joel are road tripping, Newfolk pays a lot of attention to David. While away from his regular haunts, David is very demonstrative and he and Joel talk about David being in the closet, but when they get back from their road trip, things go haywire on several fronts. One of them was actually a disappointment in Joel as a character because I thought he and David had built up something rather solid (all things considered), but their budding relationship gets thrown into the blender for a bit.
My only big criticism is the usage of Joel and David’s best friends on page. These supporting characters flit in and out of the book every now and again, which I think establishes them very well. But when they come together on page, I was just flummoxed at how they interacted and wondered why Newfolk would give such a juicy thread to character who, until then, had been pretty much scenery only. Worse, Newfolk sets up a situation where I, personally, would have loved to find out what the deal between these two guys was…but we get bupkis. This book is supposed to be the first in a series, so maybe this is one of those series that covers the same timeline across several different characters? Still, it was jarring to see such creativity “wasted” on characters with delicious emotional baggage used only as a foil to drive the story to its crisis.
All in all, this is a great summer read about summer. The descriptions of Portugal are enticing without being pedantically overly verbose. The characters are likable enough, if somewhat melodramatic at emotionally charged points—still, summer romance is full of over-the-top-ness, right? There’s plenty of heat mixed in with some heady angst at the climax ,all surrounding a couple of sensitive, sweet characters you just can’t help but root for.