Keith has been anonymously gifted with a tarot reading. Loathe to let the present go to waste, he decides to make the booking. Half convinced the whole thing is an elaborate bit of theater, Keith is surprised to discover the tarot reader doesn’t simply give him a list of feel good “interpretations” of the cards. Instead, there is a preponderance of occurrences of the number nine to accompany the Fool and the Hermit cards. Keith takes this knowledge to his friends to discuss the possible meanings, but answers are elusive. Instead, Keith begins tracking occurrences of nine, along with any other oddities he notices. Despite a growing list of entries, he seems no closer to understanding the meaning behind the tarot reading.
In the meantime, life continues apace for Keith. His myriad friends come together for Keith’s birthday party—an event that promises to be a disaster given how cliquey Keith’s circle of friends are. To make matters worse for him, a friend of a friend named Zvika has invited himself to the festivities. Keith finds Zvika to be somewhat flakey and shallow; every time they encounter one another, Keith can’t help but feel a level of aversion. Unfortunately, their paths keep crossing. Except each time, Keith notices some aspect of Zvika that he hadn’t before. Like the way Zvika saves Keith’s birthday from being an unmitigated disaster. Or how Zvika subtly teaches Keith how to enjoy dancing. Or the way Zvika seems to be able to handle drama queens and bookies with aplomb. When tragedy strikes a mutual friend, the two are thrust closer than ever and realize they can offer each other more than just a casual acquaintanceship.
Before I started reading this book, I decided to take a look at the cover. The imagery, coupled with the title, seems to have primed me for a playful romp, a sort of vapid read perfect for a mindless day at the beach. Rather than an insular tale about two hot gay men falling into bed together, however, this is a story about Keith and his new hobby/obsession with unraveling the tarot mystery. This involves several of his friends and it is within this fabric of friendship that Zvika gets introduced. The burn here starts off more like enemies/frenemies (Keith really does not care much at all for Zvika initially) and builds so slowly. Halfway through I was wondering if one of Keith’s newly single friends was actually supposed to be the love interest.
Keith slowly warms up to Zvika, but until he does, a lot of the story highlights Keith’s myriad friendships. I liked how individually his friends are written. I got the sense that these are whole people with personalities just as idiosyncratic as Keith’s. At the same time, I also felt exasperated with how much time we spent hashing out the meaning of Keith’s tarot reading with various friends. Keith struck me as a man who is skeptical of such things as tarot readings, which is why I was taken aback at the days, weeks, and months that follow where Keith is still mulling over/hung up on the meaning of the reading. It almost feels like the tarot reading is a character itself. Ultimately, Keith comes to a conclusion about the significance of the number…and the solution felt at odds with the mature sophistication of the rest of the story.
I rather enjoyed how separate and defined some of Keith’s circles of friends are. With one set of friends, they are content to get together at someone’s house and just chat over beer. With another set, there is recreational drug use. Despite being told linearly, I liked that it didn’t feel like each scene was necessarily building (or plodding) towards a big climax. In retrospect, I suppose both different sets of friends/experiences laid the groundwork for Keith to begin opening up to Zvika…specifically, the “sit around and talk story” friends often focused on the meaning of the tarot reading, while the “recreational drug use” friends are more closely related to Zvika himself. Regardless, the way Keith interacts differently with different friends was, I thought, a good reflection on the nature of actual friendships.
The slow burn between Keith and Zvika is also largely a success in my book. Keith’s change of heart towards Zvika occurs in stages; Keith is able to acknowledge that Zvika, a man whose mere presence annoyed Keith initially, slowly starts to be less annoying. And for the reader, the pay off for witnessing the slowest change of heart is a set of ending chapters that focuses very sharply on the physical nature of their relationship. While I love me some on-page sex, I did feel there was a disconnect between the abstract discussions about the meaning of tarot and all that and the concrete, overtly sexual nature of the final chapters. On the one hand, it was enjoyable to get such descriptive affirmation of the depth of these two characters’ feelings for one another. On the other hand, it felt like we’d jumped the railed into a straight up bit of erotica.
Personally, I found some elements of the narrative problematic. One of them was how some scenes come across as depicting sexually inappropriate behavior. Two examples come to mind. The first occurs when Keith visits the home of his friend George. Joe (who is George’s boyfriend and someone Keith holds very little affection for) answers the door like this:
When we arrived at George’s…[the] door was wrenched open, and we were looking into the face of Joe, George’s other half and not one of my favorite people on the earth.
Upon seeing us he made a grimace of disgust. Then, looking at me with a sudden smirk he reached out and, grabbing my hand, forced it against his crotch. I pulled my hand away irritably, at which he laughed…
The second occurs when George and Keith are having a friendly discussion about what constitutes “attractiveness”:
[George] laughed, but shook his head again. “But that’s because I can see you better than most.”
I leaned towards him, still smiling sweetly. “And why is that, George? What do you see?”
He leaned forward and kissed me on the lips–as was his far too frequent habit. I took it with good grace, because it was George, and because I had more or less asked for it.
As far as I can tell, Keith does not encourage or enjoy either of these encounters. I found these unwanted, unsolicited behaviors to be incredibly off putting.
The other problematic element for me were some descriptors that felt needlessly derogatory. There was Keith mentally describing an overweight friend as being “not attractive” when said friends strikes a “coquettish pose.” When Keith meets the immediate female family members of a deceased friend, he states the women were “like harpies” and that “if Greek women are all like that, it was no wonder that Greek culture normalized male homosexuality.” In the context of the story, this specific comment is apparently meant to highlight how judgemental Keith can be, but I found it leaning hard towards misogyny and racism. In a similar vein, once the flame of desire has sparked between Keith and Zvika, Keith once describes Zvika’s “rather full Semitic lips” as being “unexpectedly soft.” I suppose this is supposed to be a compliment, but the phrasing makes it a backhanded comment in my book (i.e. the expectation is that full Semitic lips are NOT soft, but Zvika’s were…).
Overall, this book was a more mature, slice-of-life type of slow burn romance than I originally anticipated. For someone who doesn’t know anything about tarot, I wasn’t too keen on the preoccupation with the tarot reading (especially considering Keith was a skeptic). People familiar with the concept, however, may take a lot more away from the reading and ensuing references to those cards than I did. And for readers who enjoy a slow burn with a big old sexy payout at the end, you’ll probably enjoy how Keith and Zvika ultimately come together.