Bernard Covington has never had much success in love, work, or life in general. Over the years, he’s been crushed by rejection from potential love interests. He’s worked in a dead-end job as a bellhop for a local hotel ever since high school. And now, he’s forty-six and fed up with feeling insignificant. Except, the evening Bernard orchestrated to be his final one—courtesy of a bottle of pills and a big, sharp kitchen knife—throws him headlong into the arms of the most attractive and unbelievable available man: cardiologist Jack Larson. Bernard approaches this novel situation very cautiously. After all, he’s spent nearly his entire life convinced he’s not worthy of romance, which has fed his fears that he’s not desirable. Yet hope springs eternal and with the help of a therapist, Bernard begins to see the genuine offer of friendship, and maybe something more, that Jack is offering.
Unlike his patient, Jack does not suffer from feelings of worthlessness, but he has some hefty emotional baggage just the same. A few years ago, the love of Jack’s life dropped dead at the tender age of thirty from a heart condition. Jack turned to alcohol to help him cope; since he’s been clean, Jack never felt a spark strong enough to try to move on…until Bernard. But jumping back into the dating game is easier said than done. Bernard has literally never had a romantic, adult relationship before, let alone physical intimacy. It also doesn’t help when Jack begins to compare their dates to similar ones he shared with his deceased love. Eventually, Jack begins to slide back into bad habits and just might lose the next best thing that ever happened to him.
In my estimation, the merits of this book are scant. I do like the idea of having such an intimate depiction of a main character who suffers from what I can only guess is depression. Bernard constantly identifies himself as “a pathetic loser who’s old, fat, gray and has a dead-end job…[who has] got no future, no partner, and no hopes or dreams anymore…” Eschewing any attempt at trying to diagnose this character with anything, I feel any one or combination of these sentiments makes this character relatable to readers. I also believe representation for people who suffer like Bernard has is important. Conversely, I also like the idea that the other main character comes across as the exact opposite as Bernard. Jack is a successful, well-to-do doctor and goes through a downward spiral. Here, too, I think the concept of taking a “golden” character and revealing them to be just as flawed as the rest of us can be an excellent storytelling tool. Plus, there’s a big, old schmaltzy happy ending.
That said, I found the book to have significant issues with characterization, continuity, and quality of writing. Let’s look at characterization. To be blunt, I found Bernard. A never-ending litany of self-deprecating dialogue comes from Bernard and continues as he starts dating Jack. As Bernard and Jack begin a relationship, Bernard comes across as needy, insecure, and even paranoid…in every scene. This means Jack is constantly put in the position of reaffirming Bernard’s self worth. I felt this hyper-focus on Bernard’s situation reduced these characters to distorted caricatures rather than meaningful depictions.
The book also suffers from weak writing. This goes beyond the representation of characters and permeates the narrative style of the story. For one thing, despite my expectations based on the title, there is little epistolary joy in Bernard’s Diary. Only a few of Bernard’s journal entries appear on page and add nothing to progress the plot or color the mood or tone of the story. They are merely first-person recaps of some of the events we’ve already read about. For example, Bernard’s boss at the hotel is Mr. Reed. When Bernard screws up the courage to ask for a new position, Mr. Reed laughs in Bernard’s face. Several chapters later, Mr. Reed offers Bernard the position of manager with double Bernard’s current salary. There is no rhyme or reason for Mr. Reed’s change of heart. Bernard’s twin sister gets similar treatment; she’s nebulously introduced as this drugged up floozy, but when she finally appears on page, decades of running around with her boyfriend du jour are ignored because she’s pregnant now.
For me, the biggest detractor to this story is what I feel is the complete and utter hypocrisy with which Bernard treats Jack later in the book. At this point, Bernard’s managed to claw his way out of his spiral of self loathing: he’s lost weight, he’s coming to value himself as a person, and he’s gaining ambition. Jack, on the other hand, is falling into his own spiral: he remembers things he and his old lover used to enjoy that Bernard can’t or won’t and he starts drinking again. It is here that the couple has a blow out fight, one that leaves the future of their relationship in jeopardy. Bernard leaves the house they share and decides to stay with his mother (reasonable: why should Bernard put up with feeling like he’s constantly being compared to a dead lover AND feeling like he doesn’t measure up?). Jack is crushed (reasonable: he’ll probably never stop loving his former partner, but he does have genuine feelings for Bernard) and decides to go to a bar instead of calling his sponsor.
So…after reading half a book where Jack seems to do everything in his power to make Bernard feel comfortable—verbally reassuring his insecure lover, repeating those reassurances *every* time Bernard asks, offering apologies NOT in the heat of the moment when Jack realizes he is (or gets called out for) comparing his current lover to his dead one, not to mention being the one to suggest he and Bernard live together (and in his own home)—after reading all those scenes, Jack finally realizes he’s not as over his dead lover as he thought and goes for a drink…and predictably keeps drinking. What does Bernard do? Throws it in Jack’s face, calls him an alcoholic, and refuses to see Jack or go back to their shared home. It felt like Bernard was not willing to do a single thing to help Jack get the professional help he needed, nor willing to be at Jack’s side as he struggled to put his ghosts to rest.
Overall, I thought these characters had potential. Bernard fared a lot worse in my estimation. Whatever sympathy I may have had for him was deeply damaged by the relentless one-dimensionality of his portrayal during the first half of the book and ruined when he seems completely unwilling (not unable) to help the man he says he loves. For me, this book was a hard pass.