Eeli realizes his engagement to and relationship with Moona is well and truly over when he comes home, in the rain, to find all his earthly belongings strewn across the lawn of their Helsinki townhouse. Kicked out of his house and jobless, Eeli makes due with a walk-up studio apartment on the notoriously sketchy East side of town. Sure, there may be used needles littering the park and winos on the benches, but Eeli convinces himself it’s not that bad inside the apartment building. Until he stumbles over an unconscious man sprawled in the hallway. At first, Eeli assumes he is another vagrant—even so, the more Eeli thinks about the man, the more he fears the worst. If he’s dead, Eeli should call the police. But if he’s not dead, that would make him look foolish. Unless the man really is a drunk and ends up throwing up, then drowning in his own vomit. Resigned to helping the stranger, Eeli goes out armed with a broom to make sure he doesn’t get any closer to danger than he must.
For Leo, there are good days and bad days. Today had been a good day—good enough that he felt like he could take a walk. The stairs back to his apartment defeated him, however. Such are the struggles when trying to live a life while undergoing cancer treatment. When the new guy pokes him with a broom, Leo sees an opportunity for help—and it turns into a regular thing, what with Leo needing assistance on some day-to-day tasks and Eeli being between jobs. The two form an unlikely friendship. Their banter is easy, even when they land on social landmines like Leo’s life before his cancer diagnosis or Eeli’s struggling with relationships with women and employment interviews.
It doesn’t take long for the two men to find a rhythm that works for them both. Eeli’s best friend, Patrik, takes notice. He and his wife tease Eeli about his propensity for forming better relationships with his male friends than the very women he’s tried romancing. Suddenly, Eeli starts to reevaluate some of the more important relationships in his life. He finds that he’s not as straight as he thought he was and that he just might be falling for Leo. Despite these revelations, Leo has some reservations about starting anything with a newly minted gay man. Not only that, but Leo’s been keeping a few cards close to his chest—ones that may drive Eeli away.
I very much enjoyed reading about Eeli and Leo building a friendship, then a relationship. It was surprising at first to be introduced to Eeli as a heteronormative guy suffering a breakup. What follows, however, is a slow journey of discovery for Eeli. When his friend Patrik and his wife point out Eeli’s tendency to form close relationships with other men—closer than even the ones Eeli forms with the women he’s been romantically involved with—Eeli starts to see things from a different angle.
When it comes to Leo, he’s a delightful mix of blunt observations and intentional obfuscations. The banter he shared with Eeli was very appealing—partly because Heinrich’s quirks in narrative style, and partly because Leo and Eeli really seem to banter. The dialogue felt rich and full of the nuances of a real conversation. One memorable exchange happened during a scene where Leo tells Eeli he wants to go jogging. Decked out in suitable attire, the pair of them head to the dirty park near their apartment. Here, Leo reveals he’s not actually well enough to run—and reminds Eeli that he said he “wants” to jog, not that he actually “can” jog.
As we see Eeli and Leo grow together as friends, parts of their backstory unfold as well. Eeli’s is more accessible because the people in his backstory are also on page as supporting characters throughout the book. Despite this access, it still feels like we’re told more than shown how “lizard like” Eeli behaves with women (i.e. his ex-girlfriend, at job interviews). I felt like Leo actually had the richer backstory, even though we only get little snippets of it. One particularly relatable quality about Leo is his feelings about his old self and his current self—once he and Eeli begin a romance, Leo is insecure about his body. Similarly, Eeli is unfamiliar with the standards of attractiveness when it comes to gay men—so when Eeli finds out how outwardly appealing Leo’s ex-boyfriend is, Eeli starts to wonder what chance an “average, over-thirty and therefore unfuckable” man like himself could have with anyone. I appreciated that both men’s insecurities shoot through various scenes, but never completely consume things. Just little reminders that everyone has insecurities and it’s not the end of everything or anything.
The slow buildup to Eeli and Leo becoming a couple was delightful. Eeli actually realizes he gay before he realizes he wants a romantic relationship with Leo. When he finally acts on his newly discovered feelings Leo, however, there’s a delicious bit of misunderstanding. Leo thinks Eeli is only acting to annoy his ex-girlfriend and tries to put a bit of distance between him and Eeli; Eeli thinks Leo’s just trying to take things slow. The story never turns into a bodice ripper, but there are some scenes where Eeli and Leo kiss and enjoy a bit of physical intimacy.
Of course, the big ending is pretty fantastic. One part betrayal and two parts heart wrenching. Suffice it to say everyone’s actions—both how the actions appear on the surface and the reasoning behind taking such action—feel so true to life. We’re all faced with the kinds of decisions Leo and Eeli have to make: sacrificing your happiness for your partner’s, following through on Big Romantic Gestures, wondering if you made it all worse. Despite the rollercoaster ride of emotions, I didn’t find it overwhelming…only sweetly devoted.
The only reason I didn’t rate this story higher is because, well, there are some issues with clarity in the narrative voices. There aren’t typos as such, but sometimes the turns of phrase didn’t make sense. I couldn’t tell if this was Heinrich trying to capture Finnish colloquialisms or what. Mia and Patrik, for example, were explaining how they see Eeli as D’artagnan of the Three Musketeers and how the relationships he builds with other men are like D’artagnan and the other musketeers. Eeli doesn’t know which men of his past match which musketeer, and Eeli was described as being “out like a snowman” which…I think means “Eeli couldn’t fathom what they were talking about.” Another place had the author using “borrow him money” instead of “lend him money.” There was also one mention of Eeli, who used to be obese as a kid, being shown tennis players in wheelchairs and that it should be an inspiration for him to be active. From what I gather from disability activists, this is considered “inspiration porn” and not something that is acceptable. I can’t imagine this was the author’s intent, but it is something I noticed.
Despite some issues with clarity, there are some lovely, if challenging, moments as well. Here is Leo is baring it all to Eeli about his relapse:
“I don’t mean especially you. Nobody can understand this if he hasn’t himself…it is just…When I got the news my cancer had come back…After the first chemo I was laying here, on my bed. I didn’t think about the pain or the nausea or the weakness of my limbs, those felt insignificant. I was pondering about the main event, death. The nothingness…I was so afraid of dying I considered taking all my pain meds without stopping.” Eeli’s body felt leaden. Leo, his brave musketeer, had thought about killing himself. “I felt like death was better than this constant uncertainty. Hope dangling in front of my nose and then snatched away, given to somebody else.”
“But you…you don’t think like that anymore.”
“Sometimes I do,” Leo admitted, refusing to reassure Eeli.
And sometimes the shoe is on the other foot, when Eeli realizes Leo’s been making himself miserable to save Eeli some grief:
“If you really have to go, then go. Don’t make yourself more miserable by worrying about me.”
Well, didn’t that sound strange. Pure Eeli, alright. But Leo being Leo, he understood perfectly what Eeli had tried to say.
“You’re giving me permission to die. Nobody has ever acted so selflessly for me.”
Overall, I think this is a great book and I would definitely take the time to read another story by the author, even with the little linguistic quirks. The characters are likeable and very relatable in very realistic ways. If you’re interested in a later-in-life coming out story or depictions of illness that don’t diminish the character or the plot to just that aspect, then I think you’d enjoy this HEA story.