When Corbin Davis discovers that his teenage son, Gray, is not starting fights at school, but actually fighting off a bully, his whole world turns around and he realizes just how out of touch he has become with his son. While his best gal pal and fellow single parent tries to give him advice, Corbin realizes he is way out of his depth when it comes to things like understanding his son’s nonbinary sexuality and things like make-up and feminine clothing. It doesn’t help that Gray has effectively shut his dad out of his life and isn’t talking about any of it. So Corbin decides to head over to the local gay friendly bar to see if he can get some advice from one of the drag queens who showcases there every Thursday night. Little does Corbin realize the cute barista who serves him his morning coffee at the hospital is one of the featured performers.
Andy is out, proud, and loud. He is also caring for his Gram, who has major health issues and is his best friend and pseudo parent after Andy was kicked out of the house by his folks at the age of eighteen. He is sassy, not afraid to wear a little makeup, and definitely gay. When Dr. Hottie, as he fondly calls Dr. Corbin Davis, shows up at drag night and asks him out for a coffee, Andy seizes the moment to spend more time with the cute doctor. After the two hatch a mutually beneficial plan, theirs seems to be a match made in heaven even though it’s totally made up. It will allow Corbin to get closer to Gray and hopefully encourage the boy to open up about his sexuality by showing Gray that Corbin himself is actually bisexual. It will also give Andy some breathing space from his Gram, who is determined to set him up with a boyfriend. But somehow the arrangement Corbin and Andy have begins to morph into something way too real and Andy just can’t cope with the idea that Corbin may end up breaking his heart.
Author Susan Hawke begins a new series with this first novel, How Not to Blend. With a cute premise using the fake boyfriend trope, the author also explores the hard road a teen must travel when they discover they are nonbinary and choose to be out and proud with their sexuality. Be forewarned there is pretty harsh homophobia and bullying on the page in this book, plus the retelling of a past sexual assault incident. However, none of it felt gratuitous or intended for any other purpose than to allow Corbin to understand just how far he had veered off course as a parent and the lost connection with his son, plus the secrets the boy kept from him. There were reasons for Corbin and Gray to be so distant with each other—solid ones, and it was this premise that drove Corbin to creating a pretend relationship with Andy.
I will tell you that some may find Andy to be a bit over the top. For me, I just loved him and his sass. He told it like it was and while he could come off as a bit immature at times, I felt that his way of expressing himself was actually pretty realistic given his drag queen persona and also highlighted how different his and Corbin’s walk through life had been thus far. Andy was wounded by his past and that allowed him to really key into how Gray felt, giving them some level ground to establish a relationship. Andy’s past would also help Corbin navigate the choppy waters that were ahead when it came to understanding just how scared Gray was and why he chose not to share who he really was with a dad who was driven by his job and rarely engaged with his son.
I felt the way Andy’s character was written was a pretty solid foil to Corbin’s more buttoned down life and it was enjoyable to see the two interact. Andy constantly pushed at Corbin, forcing him to break down the walls he had constructed around his heart and life after the death of his wife years before. However, there were times in this story where I felt the author tended to rush or force attraction between Andy and Corbin. It’s difficult to have two major plot lines running simultaneously, much less three or four. If you add in Andy’s worry over his grandmother’s health, Gray’s handling the bullying, and Corbin trying to reestablish his relationship with his son and untangle his growing feelings for Andy, you have quite the hodgepodge of story lines.
Unfortunately, this caused some shortcuts to happen in the crafting of the story and made some of Corbin and Andy’s decisions to ring less than true. For instance, the way in which Corbin chose to handle the bullying incident and the fallout with the school’s corresponding actions. While I felt it was realistic in some ways, it really seemed to also be a bit of a cop out on Corbin’s part when it came to all the blustering he had already done at the school where it happened. Then there was Andy’s emotional about face when his Gram got ill again. It was rather sudden and really spoke to that criticism of him being immature. I’m not a huge fan of authors creating drama when a little communication between people could have solved the problem, but again, I understood why Andy was motivated to react the way he did—he was still pretty bound up by past hurts and this was the way in which the author chose to show it.
In the end, these shortcuts did make the novel feel a bit contrived and took away from the real impact that the bullying plot line could have had. There was a lot going on in this novel and the author tried her best to give each part its due, but didn’t always achieve that goal. There was some real humor and a sweet reconnection of father and son that definitely was a highlight for me. I am interested to see more from this author and am hopeful we are going to get some stories about the other drag queens and the bar owner as well, for they were some really fun and fascinating side characters. While How Not to Blend may have had a few rough spots, I think this story was both humorous and entertaining and I certainly would like to read more in this series.
Note: While Gray is beginning to identify as non-binary, he uses male pronouns in the story