Barry and Andy ring in Barry’s forty-something birthday at a low-key club with friends of every stripe imaginable. The night begins with their usual banter about the color of the sky (a healing bruise or succotash) and ends with lazy sex. The following morning starts off mundane, with Andy taking their two dogs to the groomers and Barry enjoying a sleep in. But when Andy fails to return from the groomers, Barry gets curious where his better half got off to. Then the news hits about an accident at a construction site. Suddenly, Barry’s cozy world of being a local entrepreneur married to a local banker gets entirely upended.
Life after losing his husband is hard for Barry. The grief is relentless and, for various reasons, footage of the accident that killed Andy is only a click away. Barry is overwhelmed with loss, with questions, with what-ifs. Everything in his life and his home reminds him of the man he lost. Even when Barry tries to escape to their summer home in Florida, the shadow of his late husband follows him. Neither time, nor support groups, nor the return to the business he cultivated from the ground up can ease the pain. Instead, Barry removes himself to New York—a move that offers a drastic change of pace. Not only is he away from the constant reminders of Andy, but he can indulge his passion for Broadway shows like never before.
Bit by bit, Barry begins to cope with this loss. But when Andy’s nephew turns up, claiming his own family has violently rejected him for being gay, Barry return to his hometown. He expects to be the voice of reason for his brother- and sister-in-law, but discovers the truth is far more complicated. Adding to the turmoil is the terminal cancer his mother has concealed from him. As devastating as the news is, Barry at least has the chance to be with his mother and his sister—a precious final gift that perhaps gives him a bit of closure to move forward.
The Cool Part of His Pillow was a fascinating read. From the blurb, I knew the story was about a widower in his midlife and would cover some of the things people at these stages of their lives try: support groups, exercise groups, moving, dating, and more. What I didn’t expect was to meet the soon-to-be-departed and fall in love with the characters as a couple. In the book, Barry describes his relationship with Andy with a pot-and-its-lid metaphor and the opening chapter shows just how well these two fit together. In hindsight, I think the introduction of Barry and Andy as a couple makes a stark contrast to the bulk of the book, which features Barry alone and, by turns, adrift or aground.
More than a romance, this book is like a character study of what an educated, self-made man experiences in the face of astounding loss. There is great intimacy in scenes depicting his immediate reaction to the news of Andy’s death and, with a recent death in my own family, a lot about Barry is relatable as he moves through the stages of grief. In retrospect, there seem to be distinct layers to story: introducing the couple, the immediate aftermath of the accident, the utter despair at losing a spouse, the initial move back into life, and the real work of moving on. As distinct as these stages are, they flowed seamlessly from one to the other. Over the course of the book, I felt gradually more acquainted with Barry as a character, as well. He proves to be complex and well rounded. Barry generally seems like the kind of guy who unconsciously thinks he is a little superior to others. This comes out sharply when he eventually tries to re-enter the dating pool and more than a little bit in his narrative style that assumes everyone knows just as much about things as he does (like what pucci is). But the way he handles his business and the people who help him run it also shows that he cares about others.
Overall, I just enjoyed watching the journey Barry goes on. He is an interesting character with the means to do things many of us fantasize about—escape to New York to start over, throw caution to the wind and try that nude exercise group, tell the boss things are gonna change or else. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in stories that focus not on romantic relationships, but the familial and personal relationships that sustain us even when we are at our worst.
Note: This version is the second edition of the story and has been re-released by JMS Books.