For Robin, a gig as a tour guide in Europe is exactly where he wants to be right now. Being based in Germany puts some much needed space between him and his parents in America, who have been extraordinarily protective of Robin thanks to a heart condition that lead to him receiving a transplant several years ago. Relocating was also supposed to help Robin get over his ex, the man who broke Robin’s heart with spectacular cruelty. While the former is very much true, the latter is not. Robin’s boss has allowed a late booking onto Robin’s upcoming tour and it turns out to be none other than his ex, Mason.
Instead of being cooly civil, however, Mason continues to be a source of grief for Robin. Especially where the tour driver, Johan, is concerned. Not only does Mason vie for Johan’s attention, but he tries to ruin Robin’s chances with the attractive driver to boot. What Mason doesn’t know is that Robin piqued Johan’s interest last season. Johan saw and valued Robin’s ability to identify, acknowledge, and gently address the issues of the tour attendees. This season, Johan has changed his image; he shaved his full beard and trimmed and styled his long hair in an effort to draw Robin’s attention. And it worked! It also doesn’t hurt that their boss arranged for them to share a single room for the duration of the tour.
But life is rarely as simple as that. It is a fact that Robin, with his borrowed heart, will not likely get the chance to grow old and grey with anyone—and he’s prepared to sacrifice his chance with Johan to save Johan that heartache. Then there’s Mason. On top of his mercurial attitude towards Robin, solicitous one moment then aloof the next, both Robin and Johan notice he doesn’t always participate in the prearranged activities. When other tour participants report some unsettling observations about Mason, Robin is keen to take action…but without solid proof, he’s worried he’ll jeopardize the tour and his job for nothing.
One thing that really stood out about this story was the way Grey takes a standard get-together story and makes it not-too-saccharine sweet. Robin’s history added a lot of emotional weight and a hefty amount of angst. I gathered that he had been truly devoted to Mason; they were together for five years and Robin was assuming they’d be together forever. Since that trust was irrevocably broken, it feels authentic that Robin is wary of starting another romance. Grey also did an excellent job showing how Robin is always aware of his condition and the limitations it puts on him. The reader is clearly aware of how easily Robin tires and, the setting being Europe, how many tour activities he just hands tickets to the participants and lets them hoof it all over creation. That said, I never felt like Robin felt sorry for himself with regards to his situation—with the exception of trying to keep himself from falling for Johan. All in all, I thought this made Robin a very sympathetic hero; a guy who knew his limits and was willing to sacrifice his own happiness to keep his would-be partner “safe.”
Of course, Johan was having none of that. Johan balances his concern for Robin’s well-being with his own efforts to not only pursue Robin, but convince Robin that it is okay to fall in love again. Because of the way the narration is written, I didn’t feel like I got to know Johan nearly as well as I did Robin. This left me seeing Johan as sort of generic. The most personal things we learn about Johan (beyond the obvious element of falling for Robin) are that his family long expected him to work in their family restaurant and that it was Robin’s initial indifference to him that inspired him to lose the beard and tame the mane. For all that Johan says and does the right thing at the right time, it felt like Johan as a character is defined by his relationship with Robin, which effectively flattened the character of Johan for me a bit.
In addition to the slow-burn romance that develops between Robin and Johan, there is also the matter of Mason. There are more than a few times where Mason is an excellent foil. On page, Mason is sometimes solicitous and sometimes cantankerous towards Robin. Effectively, this had me sometimes almost hoping Mason would actually come crawling back and we’d have a lovers-reunited type of story. As the book moves on, however, Mason proves to be more nasty than noble. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Mason’s actions add a full blown “whodunit” thread to the book, but he does bring a bit of suspense.
As far as the storytelling goes, Grey’s use of the European tour theme worked well. The timing of events was facilitated by the fact that this is a package tour. The effect breaks each day up into “tour” and “after hours” types of scenes. The tour scenes showcase Robin’s competency as a tour guide and, more importantly, how much of a question mark his future is—stay in Germany where he loves being free and earning a living, or return to his family in America? The after hours scenes give us a small taste of the romance that springs up between Johan and Robin. While it certainly isn’t instalove, the pair does go from being just colleagues to being committed within the space of an eleven-day tour. This mix keeps things interesting and romance lovers will enjoy seeing how the relationship begins to bleed over into the “tour” segments towards the end. The participants on the tour itself also have rather well-defined relationships to one another that are neatly depicted. Unlike other bus-tour type stories I have read, I didn’t have to struggle to remember who was friends with whom (maybe that was partly because this was a gay tour and almost all the participants were pre-coupled?).
The only thing that caught my attention as being worthy of critique was the language ambiguity in scenes where Robin and Johan are speaking to each other. Robin is a dual citizen of Germany and America; his mother is German and apparently raised Robin to be bilingual. Johan is German. There are a few points where it’s clear one language or the other is being spoken, but this detail is not made consistently clear. I noticed in Johan’s dialogue felt a bit stiff—and I never noticed that with Robin’s speaking patterns. Specifically, it was the lack of contractions in Johan’s lines that felt jarring to me. Based on personal experience with Japanese, I know second language learners can and do pick up contractions—even when the languages are as dissimilar as English/Japanese. English and German are rather closely related, so I cannot fathom why Johan wouldn’t pick up on using contractions (that, and all the Germans who spoke English that I encountered in Germany spoke so well, I was never sure if they were locals like Johan or transplants like Robin).
All in all, Borrowed Heart was a delightful mix of heavy-hitting personal issues and fluffy happily ever after story telling. If that appeals to you, or if you are a fan of foreign settings, or stories that have a slight element of crime in them, you’ll enjoy this book.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.