Evan Calver escaped his country life and a non-future hauling coal in mines thanks to a pulmonary condition. Now he works for a grocery in London and enjoys the odd rendezvous at one public loo or another to take the edge of his physical desires. Yet when he sees a striking young man at the local pub, then runs into that same man again at the British Museum, Evan is desperate for a sign these meetings are kismet. He gets exactly that when the man, son of a well-to-do family, introduces himself as Milo Halstead and invites Evan to pose for a painting. Eager to get to know Milo, Evan accepts and soon the two are thick as thieves. But Evan wants more than friendship—he wants a steady, faithful lover. He simply must find a way to discern Milo’s orientation, lest Evan risk his very livelihood with an ill-placed proposition.
Life for Milo may not have been quite the dream—he has a history in the military and has seen some horrors on the battlefield— but he does live comfortably. His London rooms allow him the space and especially the privacy to conduct his affairs, namely portraiture and the odd fling. When he finds a devilishly good looking redhead in a bar and again at the museum, Milo sets about cultivating their relationship and it starts with having Evan sit for a portrait. Their connection grows fast and hot, but it does not go entirely unnoticed. Things take a turn for the worse when an acquaintance of Evan’s outs him to Evan’s landlady. Suddenly, Milo must decide how serious he is about a relationship with Evan and just how far that relationship can go in 1920s London.
Overall, this is a generically enjoyable book for all that it seems rather on the saccharine side. The characters are likable. Between Evan and Milo, I thought I had a better mental image of Evan, as we see him interacting with characters outside his love interest. The caveat is that the person with whom he interacts the most, after Milo that is, is his best friend Sandy—and their discussions seem to revolve almost exclusively around Milo. Still, we get a bit of backstory about Evan coming from a mining family and what impact that has on Evan’s life (leaving the mine job, suffering in the London “fog”) and get an idea about the relationship he has with his landlady (strained) and boss (fairly good). Apart from a brief introductory scene with a fellow veteran, Milo appears on-page almost exclusively in the context of “love interest.” Mostly, I was fine with this. Milo is able to express his deepening interest and attachment to Evan through invitations to pose for paintings or to just spend time together. The character is portrayed in near mythically good light, with the one downside being his blasé attitude about being gay in this time period. Therein lies one of my two biggest gripes: Milo reassures Evan that they, two men, will have a relatively easy time living together because Milo’s Very Progressive Parents will give them free reign of over one of the family homes and Milo’s Very Influential Uncle (also a judge) will protect them from prosecution. This rather blunt insistence that everything will be okay for these specific reasons rankled with me and my 2010s mindset…even if such a “devil may care” approach may have been par for the course.
The other meh point occurs early on for me, when Evan is both friends with and pining for Milo, but unable to determine whether or not Milo has any sexual interest in other men. When Evan convinces himself Milo is straight and therefore decides to give up on pursuing a romance with him, he takes this drama bomb to Sandy. It is during this scene that I felt like the narrative “everyone needs sexual relations” crops up. My dismay is not because this is necessarily counter to social norms at the time (or just the personal expectations of Evan and Sandy), but it was disappointing to me personally to be reading a gay historical romance that so blatantly reinforced the idea that a romantic relationship, by definition, must include sexual attraction to someone.
As far as the plot goes, it’s a pretty familiar set-up for a get-together. There’s the initial dance around the attraction issue and a sort of manufactured crisis. Despite the predictability of this crisis, it does create some angst that I thought was much needed/well deserved. Specifically, Evan and Milo are going gangbusters until Evan manages to catch Milo leaving his flat with an attractive, well-to-do type. Conclusions are jumped to and feelings are hurt, but eventually the two MCs find a way to work out the issue. Also, despite the fact that Milo explains he and Evan will have few worries if they pursue a life together, Lewis-Foster includes some scenes at the end that briefly explore what this reality is like. Despite Milo’s expectations, it turns out Evan was right to be worried. The pair have to deal with staff who are not as indulgent around high society types. This nod to reality was much appreciated, but felt a bit clunky coming so late in the story and definitely followed a “tell the audience” vibe rather than “show the audience.”
On the whole, the likable characters and the plot, while being somewhat predictable at times, make this an ideal book for anyone who’s looking for a quick, easy read. Fans of the historical fiction genre will probably enjoy the effort that Lews-Foster puts into describing the housing norms (boarding houses) of the times. Readers who enjoy nearly effortless head-long falls into true love will surely enjoy watching the rapid romantic developments between Evan and Milo, too.