John Inman’s latest release, Strays and Lovers, is a gentle romance that focuses on healing past hurts and recognizing one’s own worth through the eyes of someone who loves you. Gray Grissom is a bit of a mystery. Suddenly appearing in the sleepy little town of Spangles and filling the job that animal refuge owner Eddie Hightower vacated at the local hardware store, Gray keeps to himself. Despite Eddie trying to strike up a conversation, Gray is both bristly and non-communicative, causing Eddie to back off in a hurry. But while life at his refuge may be fulfilling in the sense that he is rescuing unwanted animals in need and finding them new homes, it is also lonely. Eddie, well past prime dating age and in his late forties, often feels a sadness creeping over him at the thought of being without a lover for the rest of his days.
When Gray appears out of nowhere to help Eddie build a new dog run, Eddie feels a sliver of hope that perhaps Gray is also gay and looking for companionship—surely even just friendship is possible. But no such luck as Gray disappears when Eddie is distracted by a customer and later refuses to even have a conversation with Eddie at the store. It will take the little pup, Louie, to bring the two men back together, but much more than that to make Gray stay and let Eddie love him.
This was a tender romance that brought a May/December relationship slowly into being. Gray was hard to love mainly due to the fact that his self-destructive ideas about being less than good relationship material kept crowding into the relationship Eddie was so eager to build with him. This was Eddie’s story to tell and while I had a keen sense fairly early on of just how much Eddie wished for someone to share his life, I had a more difficult time getting to really know and understand Gray despite his slowly revealing the past that had shaped all his negative feelings and left behind a great deal of emotional pain. Because of this, the story seemed to drag pacing wise for me. I wanted to shake Gray and tell him to open his eyes and trust Eddie yet I understood why he felt reluctant to do so.
In order to keep the story from getting even more emotionally heavy, author John Inman creates a secondary cast comprised of an elderly couple who own the hardware store and a bevy of stray animals who Eddie has made his own. From cute little Louie to Madame Ovary, the various dogs and cats became the much needed comic relief that kept this novel from really diving into a darker place littered with brokenness and despair. Please don’t get the idea that it was all gloom and doom, because there were lighthearted scenes that dispelled the more contemplative moments of the novel. Gray certainly had his reasons for being reclusive and Eddie was fighting against depression over his single status with no prospects on the horizon from the very beginning of the novel and yet these were tempered by delightfully funny antics by the animals and Eddie’s own love for his job
In many ways this was a novel about healing and regaining trust and, in that regard, it was a good story. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this was not the usual full bodied story we are used to getting from this author. Instead, I felt as though we were just beginning to get to know Gray and the story was over—that was a bit underwhelming for me. However, Strays and Lovers is definitely a sweet romance that many will find satisfying.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.