Nate was born with cerebral palsy. Even though he’s a quadriplegic, it doesn’t stop him from going to school (albeit with an aide), summer camp, and college. He’s just like everyone else, only with a bigger mouth and an impressive wheelchair. He laughs and cries, sulks and rages, has friends and family who love and support him and, yes, falls in both love and lust. Nate is no shy virgin; he’s a young man with an active imagination and a lot of hormones. Having lost his first love, Nate is finally ready to start looking for someone who can see past his physical limitations to see the person inside the wheelchair.
Jude comes from a large family. He has nine brothers and sisters, a loving mother, and a father who is just as warm and affectionate … to everyone but Jude, whom he calls “boy” rather than son, whom he almost never acknowledges. After the death of his first love, Jude leaves his small town behind and joins the Air Force. He falls in love again, only for that relationship to end, due in part to Jude’s reluctance to fully commit himself. It isn’t until his friend, Lacie, talks to him about what it is he’s afraid of that Jude is finally willing to get closure with both David and his father.
Two men with completely different lives. One faces physical limitations, while the other has walls around his heart. Nate has lived all his life with the freedom to be who he is, no matter who that is; Jude has lived quietly, discretely, often hiding his sexuality and having to keep his relationships a secret. Two men from two very different families brought together by love and loss.
The first chapters of this book are written from the point of view of two eight-year olds; first Nate and then Jude. As children, neither of them are aware of the subtleties of their lives. Nate’s mother is desperate to find an answer, a cure for her son. She takes him to a faith healer in the hopes of something miraculous happening that will make her son “normal.” Jude is playing a game of football with his family and doesn’t know why his father treats him differently, he only knows that he does. As the book progresses, the characters age and we get to see them go through adolescence and puberty, young adulthood, and finally, to see them become men.
Nate has never let his physical limitations become a handicap. Yes, he needs help with just about everything — even going to the bathroom becomes a task for two people. He can’t even wipe himself, let alone stand. He can’t wash himself or feed himself, but his parents are certainly not going to let him feel sorry for himself. They don’t treat him like he’s a child suffering a disease. He’s Nate. Obnoxious, loud-mouthed, bratty Nate who says what he honestly thinks as loudly as he can. They’ve also taught him to be his own advocate and he’s not above bullying his aides when they try to treat him like a thing rather than a person.
Nate has also seen his share of sorrow. There’s a summer camp for children with disabilities, and some of these children will die before they reach puberty, let alone adulthood. One of those unfortunate children is Mikey, Nate’s first love, who suffers from a particularly nasty form of Muscular Dystrophy that will likely see him dead before he graduates from high school. It’s a fact of life that Nate will attend more funerals than weddings in his life, but as much pain as there is, it won’t stop him from making friends and living his own life.
Jude grew up in a large family in a small town looking different from everyone. His family are tall, slender, and dark haired while Jude is shorter, stocky, and blonde. He stands out like a sore thumb and he doesn’t know why. He only knows that his father calls him “boy” when he calls him anything at all. Growing up Jude and his friend, Todd, knew they felt something more for each other than just friendship. When they discovered their attraction for one another, they were told to keep it quiet and to stay deep, deep in the closet. Their town wasn’t known for being open minded, even in the mid 90s.
It was a struggle to pretend they didn’t love each other, especially for Todd whose father was a preacher who used his pulpit to spread hate for homosexuality. Eventually, the night before graduation, Todd hung himself in the church. His final note expressed his love for Jude and made it necessary for Jude to leave. He chose the Air Force as a road to college and the quickest path away from his father, the church that had led to Todd’s death, and … everything. In the Army, under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell he was still forced to hide who he was. When he did meet someone, David who, like him, was finishing out his time in the Force, he found himself unable to fully connect. Jude had lived his life keeping everyone at a distance. It was easier to help other people (going into physical therapy) rather than to allow himself to feel for, and be hurt by other people.
There were good intentions in this book to show the life of someone with Cerebral Palsy. Nate’s day-to-day needs — how to go to the bathroom, how to take a bath, how Nate needs someone to feed him and take notes for him — the ways the school works with his needs, and how his family comes together to take care of him is fascinating. The fact that if he was left alone somewhere without his chair or his phone he’d be utterly helpless is frightening. Nate can’t live without people to support him, and he’s fortunate that his family is wealthy enough to give him the tools he needs to be as independent as he is.
However, other than those details, the story is … somewhat tepid. Nate and Jude live in a wholesome world where everyone is open minded, honest, and kind. Other than hints about what could happen if Jude came out of the closet, everyone he meets is nice and understanding. Even his father, who dislikes him, is fine with his homosexuality. Jude’s superiors in the military are supportive and remind him to keep quiet. Nate’s family and friends will do anything to support him. In high school, even the cops who arrest his friend for dealing pot — and who can smell it on Nate — let him go with a pat on the head. It’s so sanitized; no one is awkward or thoughtlessly cruel. They’re all just such kind, generous people.
Two scenes deserve a mention, I think. The first involves a young woman in foster care who, as a teenager, finds herself with a child. She was pressured by friends to be sexually active and she gave in. One night with a boy she didn’t care about and she ended up cast out by her parents and burdened with a child she didn’t want and didn’t love. The author acknowledges that sometimes it’s better for the child to be given the chance to find love elsewhere when the mother just isn’t ready. There’s no condemnation, just understanding.
The second scene, though, was disgustingly tacky.
Lacie, Nate’s sister and Jude’s friend, was given the refrigerator treatment; it feels like she was killed off for no other reason to add drama to the story. Her death did not change Nate or Jude as people. It didn’t change the family dynamic. It didn’t even bring Nate and Jude together. She had been trying to hook them up as a matchmaker; I don’t know why she had to be killed off for that to work. It was insulting and cheap and left me with a sour feeling regarding this book. For all the care shown to the treatment of people with physical limitations, killing off a woman to add drama to an otherwise undramatic story — and doing little more than giving token lip service to how her family felt sad about it — was offensive and tasteless.
Overall this is a sweet story, but a weak one. There is no conflict, no real drama, and no character growth. From eight years to eighteen years, Nate and Jude are who they are and nothing ever changes. They never change. Even at the end, when they finally meet, it’s so formulaic and there’s very little romance to it. The author clearly knew what they were talking about as regards CP and how it affects a person, and those were the parts I found most interesting. I think we need more stories that feature differently abled people as protagonists rather than sidekicks and that take into account their limitations — both those caused by a genetic condition or disease, and those put on them by society. The author is a talented writer, and I look forward to more of their work.
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