Twenty years ago, Isaac Reynolds graduated high school in a small, rural town in Missouri. He immediately packed up and moved to New York City, eager to live a life where he wasn’t the token Black boy or ashamed of being gay. Isaac is living his dream, working as a high-end photographer and making ends meet with steady work doing photography for a food blog. And with his twenty-year high school reunion coming up, Isaac thinks he’s finally ready to make a trip to Missouri for something other than a relative’s funeral. But when he walks back into his alma mater, everything reminds him of just how shoe-horned his life had been in the small town. The one saving grace is a decent spread of snacks brought by his cohort…particularly the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, which remind him of a boy he once loved.
A lot has happened in the twenty years since finishing high school for Grant Atkins: a failed marriage to a woman, a successful attempt at running a diner with his sister, and generally getting comfortable in his own skin. But the more he’s grown, the more he’s realized two important things. First and forever, he understands he has and always will love Isaac Reynolds. Second, Grant knows he can’t stay in his small hometown forever. It’s almost as unbearable as it is unbelievable that Isaac himself should show up at their reunion. Nevertheless, Grant jumps at the chance to rekindle his relationship with Isaac and it gives him the courage to pursue a dream of opening a restaurant of his own in a big city. But can Grant hope to find a place for his homestyle cooking in the Big Apple? Would Isaac even care if Grant were there?
Second Helpings was my choice for Self Published Book Week and it is a standalone title that features a couple hitting the prime of their lives. Witt does an excellent job building Isaac and Grant’s backstories into the book. The result is a pair of compelling, complex characters that had me reflecting on my own experiences with family tension and missed opportunities. It’s clear that Isaac felt incredible pressure being the only Black boy in an otherwise all-white school, but his life was fraught with race relation issues at home, too. Witt conveys in sharp, concise vignettes the facts of Isaac’s conception as biracial, being raised by his white grandparents, and at least two contentious truths he learns about his grandfather.
Similarly, Grant’s backstory is also fleshed out, though not through first-person accounts like Isaac’s is. I wasn’t sure what to make of Isaac’s negative reaction to learning that Grant had been married—it was pretty rich coming from a guy who’d skipped the light fantastic out of town before ink on his diploma had dried, then, 20 years later, got upset that Grant had a life. How would Isaac know if Grant were gay or bisexual or anything else? I think it’s pretty clear to readers that Grant is gay, rather than bisexual, but it’s not like the first thing you’d say to your old flame is anything close to “Hey! Fancy seeing you after 20 years. I’ve never been anything but gay! How about that DJ?” So…yeah. A bit presumptuous on Isaac’s part, I thought.
The timeline of the story is very tight. It focuses almost entirely on the long weekend Isaac spends with Grant in Missouri. This allows for a lot of angsting from both Grant and Isaac…and a lot of reconnecting between the sheets. I thought there was a great balance between that awkwardness of sharing space with someone you once knew very intimately and actually making meaningful connections to who that person is now…both in bed and out. This is largely reflected in the aborted attempts Isaac and Grant have at sightseeing in town before realizing they’d be happier just being together without all the landmarks. And, because Isaac works with a food blog and Grant actually makes food, they really start to let their walls down while cooking a classic midwestern dump casserole together.
Although I think this would be a fine read for any fan of contemporary romance, I think it’s an excellent choice for older readers, people who’ve been out of high school for a few years, or people who enjoy reading about characters grappling with their (not always successful) life choices. I think Isaac and Grant are extremely relatable and represent both midwestern and urban esthetics well. And there’s a big old “this is how people with histories have a happy ending” ending…so even with all the painful memories of being left behind/leaving someone behind, there’s definitely a silver lining waiting for Isaac and Grant.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Self Published Book Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of ten HUGE prize bundles donated by some fabulous self published authors (you can see the full prize list here)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Self Published Book Week here.