Narrator: Greg Boudreaux
Length: 11 hours, 13 minutes
Since forming the band Twisted Wishes at 16-years old, all Ray Van Zeller has ever wanted is to make expressive, evocative songs that touch people and convey his love of music. Unfortunately, sharing his passion with the world comes with the stress of the music industry and ugly media scrutiny—a stress that is slowly eroding Twisted Wishes and Ray’s nerves. On the cusp of making a big name for themselves, tensions (along with a bottle of whiskey) explode, leaving Twisted Wishes without its drummer, Kevin, and getting the wrong kind of media attention. Between his anger and frustration at their manager Carl’s PR response (painting Ray as a hotheaded, raging alcoholic), and the pain, responsibility, and guilt he feels for Kevin’s alcohol addiction and departure, Ray is in no mood to deal with Zavier Demos, the musical prodigy whose talent (and body) Ray had lusted for in high school. Still resenting Zavier’s refusal to be in his band from the start, Ray’s dislike is only fueled by the fact that Zavier is even more talented, more cultured, and hotter than he was before—and of course, the best man for the job.
Despite Ray’s hostility, Zavier is ecstatic to be drumming for the band. Twisted Wishes’s need for a drummer is a lifeline for him; having been blackballed in the symphonic community by a bitter ex, his career has stalled. However, it’s Ray’s songs and the band’s talent that is the biggest draw. While Zavier’s musical integration into the band is seamless, his personal integration is less so. Ray’s acrimonious relationship with Carl, the threat of being dropped from their label, and Ray’s constant recriminations and feelings of failure turn him into a temperamental, knotted ball of anxiety that Zavier itches to take in hand and smooth out. Unfortunately, he knows firsthand the cost of getting involved with someone you work with; plus, Zavier’s personal relationships all ended in bitter recriminations. Being aromantic, Zavier always made his wants and needs in a relationship clear, but he was still blamed for not giving his partners more. Not wanting the same thing to happen with he and Ray, Zavier tries to support Ray as strictly a friend, slowly chipping away at the sequoia-sized chip on Ray’s shoulder and building a foundation of trust.
As Twisted Wishes tours the country as an opening act, the band’s sound becomes tighter and their popularity grows, but so too does Carl’s dissatisfaction and his bullying of Ray until Ray is on the verge of complete mental breakdown and Zavier can no longer deny his need to provide an outlet for Ray’s anxiety. Although the stress of being in a burgeoning D/s relationship, being under constant threat by Carl, and the natural tumult that comes with touring conspire to complicate Zavier’s and Ray’s growing bond, the biggest obstacle they face is Zavier’s inability to handle the emotions being with Ray evoke.
Syncopation is an interesting book, full of complicated, emotional, likable, and relatable characters. Ray is a hot-mess—temperamental, apprehensive, and restless, yet also responsible, reliable, and unknowingly brilliant. He takes being the band leader to heart, much to his detriment, as he blames himself for everything bad Twisted Wishes experiences (even Kevin’s addiction) and tries to shield his bandmates from all negativity, discounting that they are adults and could (and should) help him with the complications of the music industry. Additionally, that chip on his shoulder gouges in and leaves splinters when he’s around Zavier, leaving him even more raw, vulnerable, and pissed-off. To Ray, Zavier is everything he isn’t but wants to be—musically gifted, charming, monied, cultured, controlled, and intelligent—making Ray want him and loath him in equal measure (at least for a while). Having Carl there to reinforce how much Ray sucks and what a failure he is only inflames the insecurity and angst burning through Ray’s brain and damming any calming wave of positivity or happiness he experiences.
With his confidence, steadfastness, and calm, Zavier slowly becomes Ray’s friend, most outspoken advocate, and, eventually, a haven from his fear of failure. Moreover, Zavier slowly helps Ray begin the arduous task of believing that he is a talented musician who deserves his career and is more than capable of leading the band. For all his seeming perfection in Ray’s eyes and his steadying presence in the band, Zavier does have his own baggage and isn’t a two-dimensional “perfect boyfriend” caricature. While he isn’t as impetuous or prone to fly off the handle as Ray, he can be as contradictory—wanting to be Ray’s confidant and teach Ray better control by dominating him, but pulling away when he becomes emotionally uncomfortable. The evolution of their relationship is compelling, full of sexual tension and promise, and (once together) comparatively angst free. I loved the fact that Zavier is aromantic and owns it. He knows who he is and isn’t ashamed, frustrated, or cowed by it. His only “problems” revolve around other people and their inability to understand him and appreciate him for who he is.
As for the secondary characters, while I liked Dominic and Mish and found the group’s camaraderie delightful, I also had a hard time dealing with the disparity between how close Ray and his bandmates are said to be versus Dominic and Mish’s lack of active on-page support. While the two often talk to Zavier about how Ray overburdens himself, takes undue responsibility, etc., it takes Zavier’s presence for them to provide a united front against Carl. And while Mish occasionally intervenes when Carl is really laying into Ray (because Carl is attracted to her), they also never actually step up to try to get Ray to allow them to help until the end of the book and the situation has reached critical mass. Zavier, Mish, and Dominic even get upset about Ray bottling things up/keeping things from them, but there’s no textual evidence to show they’ve tried to get him out of own head and to talk to him or ask him what’s wrong. This is especially annoying as the complaint comes after Zavier purposefully distances himself from Ray after being spooked by his complicated feelings.
Mish and Dominic tend to let Ray brood and bemoan about his headspace/actions, and seem content to let him be. Even a line like “we’ve tried for years to help him” or “no matter how often we offer, he turns us down” to Zavier would have gone a long way to shoring up the “we’ve got your back” found family vibe the rest of the narrative suggests. Having people/characters say one thing while their actions in the text say something else is a bit of a pet-peeve for me and probably bothered me more than it will other readers. I also have mixed feelings regarding Carl and his use as the major plot driver. While the a$$hole band manger character isn’t new, IMO, Carl is a standout and downright evil, and after a while, I found it really hard to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to make his continued employment as their manager credible. Maybe I am just naïve about the hierarchy and power dynamics of music companies, but I just couldn’t fathom the band being so isolated from anyone else in the company or continuing to remain so when they are eventually introduced to higher ups/people with power who are clearly happy with them and that could offer help.
Despite that, Greg Boudreaux’s own status as a rockstar among narrators continues in Syncopation and increased my overall enjoyment of the story. As a music lover/musician, the prose dedicated to Ray’s almost rapturous experience of music strikes a chord, and is wonderfully full of intense emotion when conveyed by Boudreaux. I could almost feel the high Ray flies on in those moments, beautifully portraying what Ray is like when he is free and unburdened by his almost cripplingly low self-esteem, self-doubt, and anxiousness. Having these glimpses of freedom be so few and far between and narrated so well truly emphasizes the pressure and weight of responsibility Ray places upon himself. Per his usual, Boudreaux brings all the characters to life and handles Ray’s angst, the fun, banter, frustration, chemistry, and all the feels in between really well.
So, if you like your frontmen high-strung and in desperate need of a firm hand, your drummers confident, controlled, and dominant, and don’t mind when the antagonist’s a$$-hattery tips them into Disney villain levels of WTF?!?, I recommend giving this audiobook a try.