Luc O’Donnell is the son of two rock stars, making him not quite famous himself, but close enough. It means that Luc ends up in the tabloids periodically, and it makes it hard to trust people, particularly after his ex-boyfriend sold him out. When a compromising picture of Luc ends up in the news, it starts to affect his job as a fundraiser. It seems the important donors are fine with him being gay, as long as he isn’t “that kind of gay.” Luc figures he needs to reform his reputation, and that means finding a respectable guy to pretend to be his boyfriend while he gets the donors back on board.
Luc’s best friend connects him with Oliver Blackwood, a guy who is about as respectable as they come. He is a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, totally scrupulous, and polite to everyone. Luc can admit to having been attracted to Oliver for years, but Oliver doesn’t seem to like him much. Still, Oliver has a family event for which he needs a date as well, so he agrees to fake date Luc for a while to get them both out of their predicaments.
Complicating Luc’s life further, his absentee father is back in his life. His dad walked out on Luc and his mom when Luc was a young child and hasn’t bothered to speak to him since. Now, his dad has cancer and wants to reconnect. Most of Luc wants nothing to do with the man; he has been hurt by his dad’s abandonment for years, and he doesn’t feel like his father deserves his attention now. But Luc also can’t help but want to give reconciliation a chance, even as he is sure nothing will come of it.
As Luc and Oliver spend more time together, they become friends and Luc finds himself incredibly drawn to Oliver. He is learning to trust Oliver, and realizing that he can lean on him. With Oliver’s support, Luc also begins to get his life together. He starts to recognize he is worth more, that he deserves better out of life than the path he has been taking. And Luc begins to help Oliver stop worrying so much about pleasing others and think about what he wants and needs. Things are going so well, both men realize that there is nothing fake about their relationship. But when their responsibilities to one another are all over, will they be able to turn things into something lasting?
Fake relationship stories are a popular trope (and one that I love), and Alexis Hall gives the common theme a new shine here in Boyfriend Material. The story is very character driven and less about the fake dating than it is about the growth in the men themselves. There is an intimacy here between the readers and the characters, a sense of really being engrossed in their story, that I particularly loved. I also really enjoyed the way that we see Luc and Oliver each grow over the course of the book, both as a result of each other’s influence, but also because they begin to reach for their own happiness themselves as well.
Luc is our POV character and he is kind of a lovable mess. It is clear he has been burned badly before, both by his father’s abandonment, as well as by past men who sold him out. He is so worried about being hurt that he lets nothing in. But it is not just a lack of trust in others, it’s also that he doesn’t care much about himself. He settles for less than he deserves because he is scared and unwilling to put himself out there. As he tells Oliver:
You don’t understand what it’s like. Every stupid thing I’ve done. Every time I’ve been dumped. Ever time I’ve been used. Every time I’ve been even a little bit vulnerable. That’s forever. For anyone. It’s not even a proper story. It’s the article you read over someone’s shoulder on the Tube. It’s the half headline you catch as you walk past a newspaper you’re not buying. It’s something you scroll through when you’re having a shit.
It’s just enough to make Luc feel caught, to know that people are watching and waiting for him to mess up and, rather than fight it, he just gives in to it. He has “turned getting ahead of the story into a lifestyle.” The relationship with Oliver gives Luc a new perspective. Oliver is someone he can trust, and someone who believes in Luc, who thinks he is worthwhile. And as a result, Luc begins to believe it himself. I loved that while Oliver may be the impetus to help Luc see himself differently, the change still comes from Luc and it is much bigger than just Oliver’s influence. Oliver’s growth is more subtle, as he at first seems just about perfect. He is polished and polite and kind and thoughtful. But Oliver also is so wrapped up in doing what other want and expect, in shaping himself to what he thinks he should be, that he doesn’t live for himself. Luc helps Oliver realize that he is good enough just as he is, that is loved for himself, and not just for reaching some outside standards of perfection. The men are so good for each other and I loved seeing them grow together.
The book also touches on an interesting issue with regard to Luc’s job. He is a fundraiser and deals with wealthy donors who are turned off by stories about him in the news. They are mostly fine with the idea of him being gay, as long as he is “the right kind” of gay. Meaning no drunk antics, no random hookups, nothing that makes him stand out in any way. He can be gay as long as they don’t see it, as long as he conforms to their views of what is an acceptable way to be. I think this was really well explored in the story and we see it is something that Luc has to come to terms with and figure out when and how to push back.
While there is a quiet intensity to much of the relationship end, this is also a story with lots of humor. We get some nice banter between Luc and Oliver, and among their groups of friends. They are an entertaining lot, and often used for comic relief. For example, Luc has two friends, both named James Royce, who are a couple and are now both James Royce-Royce. Luc also works for some dung beetle society with the acronym CRAPP and his co-workers are mostly dumb as posts (at times, a bit too absurdly so). So there is some light humor here that keeps things balanced.
Overall I really enjoyed this one. Oliver and Luc are such fascinating characters and Hall does a wonderful job just immersing us in their relationship. I loved them watching them grow individually and fall for one another. Definitely recommended.