Ryan Blake is finally allowed to come into the inheritance left to the first of his generation to turn twenty-five years old. It means more to Ryan than money–it means freedom to leave his emotionally abusive so-called boyfriend. Running under cover of night, he drives all through the night to reach Kingsdown, the small town where he and generations of Blakes used to live. His flight is meant to be the start of a new life, and he wants to find out more about why his great-great grandfather would leave the entirely of his fortune to his great-great grandkids’ generation, while wholly cutting out everyone in between.
Enter Charlie Hatch, a man three years Ryan’s junior and the one who has been in love with Ryan Blake since they briefly attended the same high school. Charlie has a penchant for local history and the family of his high-school crush provides ample mystery to investigate. Never did he think he’d ever come face to face with the object of his teenage desire–or have the chance to strike up simple conversation as he spies Ryan visiting family graves in the churchyard where Charlie’s mother serves as vicar. He quickly swoops in to make Ryan’s acquaintance by dazzling Ryan with tantalizing tidbits from the history of the Blakes.
While Charlie flexes his research muscles for Ryan’s benefit, Ryan himself wonders if he perhaps has a stalker on his hands. The things Charlie knows about not just the Blake family, but about Ryan in particular, are nothing short of astonishing. Even when Charlie relents and reveals that they shared a year of school together, Ryan is impressed with Charlie’s attention to detail. What’s more, he’s flattered that he indirectly inspired Charlie to take up learning how to play the pipe organ for no other reason than Charlie saw Ryan perform at a school function once. One thing leads to another, and soon the two young men are bonding over an illicit performance of Suite Gothique on the church organ and a realization that they share a spark.
In the days that follow, Charlie leads Ryan through his method of demystifying the past–specifically that of Myles Blake and the inheritance he left to Ryan. Soon, that spark flares into genuine affection that has both men reevaluating the trajectories of their separate lives…and perhaps they will find a way to twine their futures together.
I know a lot of people think of “summer reads” as books that involve fun in the sun at the beach and steamy romances. Those appeal to me and remind me of my own summer reads as a kid–but then, I also appreciate the Japanese philosophy that ghost stories are good for summer (the chills of a ghost story will cool you down). In that regard, I thought this was the perfect summer read since there is a lot of “gothic” sensibilities to the story. What I mean by that is the weather is often depicted as rainy, cold, and dreary (it’s actually late fall-ish in the story), the characters are first introduced to us and each other in a graveyard, they play the Suite Gothique*, and a lighthouse! I really enjoyed this setting and as an American, I’ll probably always associate British/UK things with a sense of mystery and awe.
As much as I loved the setting, I had more of a mixed reaction to the main characters. Ryan came across as, well, overwhelmingly bland. He’s sort of defined by Charlie with the exception of the bad romance that sent him running back to Kingsdown. While we get snippets of how horrible Ryan’s defunct relationship is, I didn’t feel it was substantial enough to build more than a polite sympathy. What he does have going for him is that he’s attentive to Charlie–and it doesn’t really stop or change when he realizes what Charlie’s situation at home is. Ryan is quick to get over the surprise of knowing someone has dedicated significant time into researching the Blake family (it helps the Blakes aren’t the only ones Charlie’s super sleuthed) and supports Charlie in his determination to solve the mystery of the Blake inheritance. I also liked the idea that Ryan is willing to go at Charlie’s pace, even if it doesn’t seem like he’s showing much restraint on that front at every turn.
Charlie, on the other hand, took me a far longer time to, well, tolerate. He just rubbed me the wrong way from the very beginning. I think part of it is the fact that he truly has held a torch for Ryan Blake ever since high school. Ryan was in his last year and Charlie was in his first or second year, so there was very little opportunity for their paths to cross. Puppy love and unrequited crushes are fine. I just thought it sort of depressing that Charlie never lost that spark of interest even though six years had passed since high school…and literally the only thing Ryan ever said to Charlie was “fuck off” (at the same time, I can also very much identify with feelings of “OMG, the hot boy SPOKE to me!). The character has a lot of unrealized potential, too. With so much of the focus dedicated to their joint efforts to solve the Blake mystery, I though the characters suffered a bit. For example, why does Charlie *choose* to live as rough as he does? He’s about two steps above homeless, but all we know is that it doesn’t have to be that way (he has family and/or he could find a job—and this book does not touch on the vicious cycle where poverty begets poverty, so…) Charlie’s mean circumstances are quintessential Charlie—but we never get to deep dive into this aspect of the character beyond a perfunctory “I’m fiercely independent.”
Whatever likeability/oomph the characters lack, it’s countered by a mystery plot that I enjoyed a lot. The history of Ryan’s great-great grandfather drives Ryan and Charlie both. Ryan focuses on why the inheritance skipped several generations. Charlie is more interested in unraveling the apparent disappearance of an unusual Blake family heirloom ring. The focus on past generations didn’t detract from Marsh’s efforts to grow a story between Ryan and Charlie. I thought the author did a pretty good job stringing elements together throughout the story, leaving me with lots of pieces but no clear ideas about how they fit. For me, at least, this keeps me guessing. There are even a few dream sequences that made me wonder if there might be a splash of paranormal. Charlie’s focus on the ring, however, it was really leads the “chase,” so to speak. By pursuing the ring, Ryan and Charlie are able to do more than piece together the past as told by newspaper articles, journal entries, and oral tradition. The setting again really helped me get into the ‘mystery’ head-space, with stormy weather and creepy lighthouses inhabited by a descendant of a Blake family friend.
Overall, I think the romance is meant to be solidly built between two unsuspecting young men. Marsh does a lot of work to substantiate how and what they feel (or that they can’t help how and what they feel, circumstances be damned). Still, I spent most of the book waiting with bated breath for “the other shoe to drop” so to speak about Charlie–I misgivings about him right through the very end, expecting some great twist to either eradicate all my doubts or justify all my suspicions. This is balanced by the mystery threads of the plot that keep the characters linked (Ryan with a desire to find out more about his family and Charlie as the one with the information). The use of an organ as a plot device was a quirky surprise–just be forewarned there is a lot of organ jargon at the end that was required to make the plot device work, but that left me at a loss for visualizing what exactly the characters were doing to finally resolve their riddle.
*Note: on my phone, this played just fine as far as volume goes but on my laptop, I had to really up the volume to hear the beginning part…and you really ought to appreciate this from the beginning of the Toccata. The whole piece is lovely, but the Toccata is the “exciting” bit.