At the end of summer 1969, Johnny Darling spends a few final days with his old high school friends before leaving home to attend the University of Florida. Once he gets to the dorms, though, Johnny begins to question his decision. His roommate comes from money and even after a few weeks, Johnny hasn’t made many friends. In fact, his one bit of reprieve is finally living with another man—albeit one he is sure would never reciprocate his feelings.
Ben Stonecipher and his family are still reeling from the recent accidental death of Ben’s twin, Chuck. Brought together by random chance, Ben falls into an easy friendship with his roommate, Johnny. The two share walks around campus, meals at the dining hall, and one fateful night, too many cuba libres that shift their friendship into romance. Between the easy camaraderie and the physical intimacy, Ben and Johnny build something special between them. Johnny finds a rare friend and Ben finds the support he needs to cope with the death of his twin.
Temptation strikes, however, in the form of Steve—Johnny’s best friend from high school and former crush. Despite being in love with Ben, Johnny can’t shake his feelings of friendship and sexual enticement when Steve reveals he always want more from his friendship with Johnny. For months, Johnny struggles to find the balance between love, lust, companionship, and convenience. But things can’t last forever when Steve and Ben keep pulling Johnny in opposite directions.
This was more of a “hate to love it” than “love to hate it” kind of book for me…except the “love” is more like “like/understand.” The vast majority of the story revolves around Johnny’s two relationships: the love he’s discovering with Ben and the unrequited love he’s discovering with Steve. Given these events unfold during the MC’s first year at college, it’s easy to sympathize with Johnny’s plight. Part of what makes it so tricky to just stick with one guy or the other for him is the way that the two rarely ever interact. If you’re into any sort of love triangle, this book would certainly scratch your itch.
As far as the characters go, I found myself liking Ben more—he’s honest and when Johnny admits his first (few) “transgressions” with Steve, Ben handles it with enviable aplomb. It seemed entirely plausible that he would forgive Johnny for his (several) transgressions with Steve…but it was also nice to see that Ben wasn’t entirely a pushover towards the end of the book. While Ben comes from money, that money is earned by hard work on his family’s ranch. Much of the action unfolds as Ben and Johnny spend school holidays and whatnot at Ben’s family’s ranch. It all goes towards demonstrating how clean-cut Ben is…and why I was rooting so hard for the poor sap.
In contrast, Johnny’s much more “human” in that basically paints himself into a corner where his love life is concerned. First, he establishes as bona fide relationship with Ben. Then, when he’s back home for some vacation or other and Ben’s across the state on his family farm, Johnny learns his best friend in high school is gay and always had the hots for Johnny. While Johnny’s succumbing to Steve’s adamant advances is understandable and, I thought, almost a foregone conclusion, at least that first time, I was surprised to see a guy who clearly has quibbles about two-timing Ben continue to fall for Steve’s increasingly transparent emotional manipulation. More to the point, when Johnny finally does draw a real “line in the sand,” Steve seems to accept it, despite some pretty fantastic lengths he’d previously gone to to guilt Johnny into giving Steve what he wanted.
The plot is a pretty thin thing. It’s structured around the schedule of college students, so there are no surprises there. There is no action except what the characters bring in terms of emotional drama, but there are a few notable exceptions to romantic drama bombs. I really enjoyed the subtle but pretty visible way Fishback handled Johnny’s and Ben’s coming out to their respective families. It wasn’t just a “I’m gay!” announcement, but more of a process. There is a short theme on crime and punishment for the illegal act of sucking off your boyfriend in 1969 Florida, as well. This, more so than the copious depictions of their sex acts, demonstrated to me that despite Johnny’s inability to be faithful, he truly is invested in his relationship with Ben.
All in all, this is just a simple coming out/get together story. The biggest conflict centers entirely on how and why Johnny ends up having a serious boyfriend and an affair on the side (not bad for a 19 year old, I guess?). Personally, I thought this made the book a bit dull since we just go back and forth as Johnny figures out what he wants. There are some moments of angst, several moments where Johnny realizes he’s being a dick, and we see Steve get progressively bolder in his emotional manipulation. Even with a bit of on-the-farm drama thrown in and the MCs coming out to their families, the major story points felt a bit narrow. Still, if you like reading about love triangles and want to get hit with waves of nostalgia over the constant name-dropping of period-specific songs, you’d probably get a kick ouf of this book.