The amputation of one of Mike’s legs following an attack during a tour of duty in Iraq has been a devastating blow to his identity, creating a profoundly negative impact on his return to civilian life. This loss is compounded by the fact that Mike is a wholly invested in his religion’s patriarchal gender norms—men are strong and show no emotion, women are weak and subservient. His ex-girlfriend tried to soften his transition home, but not even she could assuage the nagging sense of his being “less.” There are only two places where Mike can find solace from himself. One such place is his bible-thumping church congregation led by an incredibly conservative pastor; the other is literally in the arms of a man named Roman, who happens to be Mike’s physical therapist.
Mike has fought tooth and nail to fight what his church considers to be sin: erotic thoughts about other men. He’s always had a ready excuse and explained any and all sexual urges towards other men as simply being Satan’s attempt to corrupt him. Yet when Mike meets Roman, those urges slam into him with breathtaking force…and Mike finds within himself a growing attraction to a man who proves to be kind, capable, and exactly the kind of person who can break through Mike’s self defenses. The only problem is that Mike’s pastor and congregation are about to embark on a campaign to smear the local queer community—including Roman—in the most public way. And the paster wants to use Mike as posterboy for the effort. Suddenly, Mike has to weigh his religious teachings against his emotions and he’s not sure where his loyalties lie.
Based on the official blurb for this book, I was expecting the story of a man who was questioning his sexuality. I was caught rather by surprise to get a few pages in with our first-person narrative and discover Mike is a deeply closeted, conservative, religious quasi-zealot. I made more than a few notes about Mike’s inner monologue where his thoughts seemed redolent with toxic masculinity and hyper patriarchal notions. While this sets Mike up for a pretty shattering realization about himself later in the book, the excessively black-and-white views he espouses were a bit uncomfortable for me.
That said, Mike’s conservative attitude is counterbalanced by the seemingly nonstop way his subconscious reacts to (and is aroused by) Roman, the physical therapist (PT). We also come to learn that Mike has had sexual thoughts about other men pretty much since puberty. After seeking advice about “temptation” from his pastor, Mike tries to pass this overwhelming physical attraction off as nothing but the Devil’s work. The prose during these situations is intensely sexual and feels akin to straight up fantasies. Of course, the longer Mike goes to therapy and gets to know Roman, the more Mike grows to like Roman as a man.
As far as Mike’s romantic life goes, it’s pretty clear he and Roman are supposed to end up together. However, their connection seems to rely heavily on reader assumptions. Specifically, they are almost exclusively shown in the context of Mike’s physical therapy, which happens once a week. There are efforts to flesh out Roman as a whole person, not just the hot PT. Personally, though, I didn’t think they went far enough to shift Roman from “conveniently convenient” romantic interest to something that felt more real. At least for Mike, we know he’s got the hots for Roman and can buy into a sort of instalove situation. Roman, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any compelling reason to fall for Mike other than…well, he’s there.
Personally, I was more drawn to the religious journey Mike goes on. His involvement in and contact with his church, congregation, and pastor are constants in the book. I thought Smythe captured the depth of his religious connection rather well. This aspect of Mike’s character is present from the very beginning and it was a delicous wait to see him realize that perhaps his homophobic community could be wrong about the queer community. It was satisfying to watch Mike gradually shift from a man who took the bait — hook, line, and sinker — into someone who could think critically about the messages his church was espousing. It didn’t hurt that the biggest “aha” moment is delivered in a public setting that pits the “god hates gays” crowd against an unsuspecting (gay?) bar.
Overall, this book held more interest for me insofar as it explores one man’s journey from a place that clings to a particularly narrow-minded type of religious conservatism and into one that embraces queerness. The romance is cast in bluntly, artlessly sexual tones and doesn’t seem to really grow or develop as more than physical attraction, but the reader is “rewarded” with a big sexy scene at the end, so there’s that.