Van is a natural builder with a rural preserve estate in the Dordogne region of France. He hosts sought-after workshops on his property to teach people how to build homes and buildings from cob—a mixture of straw and clay mined from the earth. Workshoppers are also guests in the cob cottages handcrafted by Van and dotted on his land. They eat from Van’s gardens and use the outhouses and live sustainably for the week or two, aiming to take Van’s lessons and share them. Most of Van’s students are friends of former students—lots of word-of-mouth within the green building community.
Armin is a young, introverted freelance journalist who pretty much lost his career and relationship because of an expose article he wrote. The spin has made him a laughingstock, in fact. With his reputation in tatters, Armin’s aunt sends him to Van’s workshop in her stead. Arriving from Franfort, Armin’s sickly and prickly, recovering from an illness. He’s half-dead, pimply and appearing like a scarecrow on a diet. So, Van sends him out to collect duck eggs for a late supper omelet. Armin is immediately horrified by the rustic living—there are three cob outhouses! And wildlife all around. Yet, he’s also captivated by Van, older and sexy with it, who is both enigmatic and engaging.
Armin is sure Van is partnered with Allie, who helps runs the workshops, and whose son adores Van like a father. Allie once fell hard for Van and moved on when Van made it clear there would only ever be friendship between them—even when her husband died mere months before their son’s birth and Van became a temporary surrogate father. They have a long-time and intimate friendship, but that is all. And Armin is glad for it because there is something electric happening between himself and Van.
This story begins with a confusing prologue that claims it could also be an epilogue. And I think I might have liked it better in the end than the beginning. But that’s also my personal preference. The book is really a delight with intense descriptions of Van, Armin, and Allie who take most of the turns narrating. I had never heard of cob houses before opening this book, but I feel a bit inspired about it now. The green living, green building descriptions were really tight and engaging, especially through Armin’s skeptical eyes. He’s attracted to Van, and yet he’s challenging him on his constant conservation. It’s a nice give-and-take and the tension continues to climb. Armin notices the bas-relief details within Van’s personal space—a repeating pattern of The Horned One, or The Elder Man, a primeval god of the earth and seasons. Van uses Armin’s inquiries to share some of the legends of the Elder Man and bolster his reasons for sustainable living. Armin’s curiosity isn’t relieved, it’s piqued, and it leads to some dirty sexytimes. Think: that pottery scene in Ghost, not porn.
Van is interested in Armin, recognizing the spark he’s been seeking for a long, long time. It’s hard for him to fall though, expecting Armin will be on his way at the end of the workshop. They can’t stop the building rapport and instead of becoming bittersweet, the men just let it ride. Once Armin decides he wants to stay, Van shares his biggest story of all. This took the story from reality to a bit of metaphysical, a touch of the supernatural. The blurb sort of gives away the game, and the prologue reveals the end, and yet I still liked the steady and methodical build from attraction to romance.
I found myself enchanted, much like Van’s cob-building proteges. It’s fun and awesome and inspiring and uplifting. The mix of interesting characters allows their tidbits of backstory to bring the focus wide and let both Van and Armin ruminate on their odd society. One of the ladies thinks she can woo Van, which makes for a bit of potential romantic conflict. Van himself admits that he’s “open-minded” not gay, per se. When we learn about his history, its easier to see this is just reality, not convenience.
I really liked this one, reading far later into the night than I could generally justify. It’s just a little spicy-sexy, but the themes of green, sustainable living were as engaging for me as the romance. I’ve never been to France, but you can bet I was looking up cob houses in the Dordogne on the internet thanks to the evocative storytelling.