Normally, Phil McManus doesn’t jump into anything head first. Being careful is what has helped him carve out a comfortable life working as a stockbroker. But when he meets Richard, who was turned out of his home for being gay, Phil immediately lets the man into his home and, eventually, his heart. One year later, he might even be ready to admit he is falling in love. That is until Richard accuses Phil of insider trading at the company they both work for. A lawyer friend manages to prove that Phil himself was not committing fraud, but with an investigation ongoing and his colleagues now wondering if Phil and Richard were more than housemates when England’s sodomy laws have only very recently been changed, Phil decides it’s time for a break in the countryside. There, he meets a farmer named Laurie.
Farming is in Laurie Henshaw’s blood. It has been ever since Laurie’s parents disowned him for being gay when he was just a boy and Laurie went to live on the very farm he owns now. He’s now taken over the bookkeeping and has become the fastest sheep shearer. But then, Laurie suffers a stroke that puts him in the hospital for months. Getting back to the farm isn’t as much of a relief as he’d hoped, largely because one side of his body has been terribly weakened. As he struggles with basic daily tasks like dressing and bathing himself, Laurie despairs of ever engaging in the real work of the farm. And when he discovers he can no longer make sense of even the bookkeeping end of things, he is just about ready to give up hope. If it weren’t for the friendly overtures from Phil, who is renting a property adjacent to the farm, Laurie is sure he would be lost. But can he learn to share the burden of needing help and to trust a found family as much as he would have trusted a blood one?
Taking Stock is a slow-burn get together that takes place in the early 1970s in England. I picked this title for my Past/Future Week challenge read because I was interested in how the gay main characters would be depicted in the not-too-distant past. Lester clearly indicates the year/month for most chapters and the story stretches between May 1971 and October 1972. It’s clear that it is no longer a criminal offense to be in/have same-sex relationships, but it’s still not widely accepted. Phil, for example, is eager to prevent his stockbroker colleagues from learning that he was in a romantic relationship with Richard before Richard betrayed him. Similarly, Laurie is worried the people who have worked on his farm for years (if not decades) would think differently of him if they knew he was gay…and that’s despite the fact that the previous owners (now deceased) were both male and clearly in a committed relationship. To that end, the main characters are clearly still very aware of the stigma attached to being gay and this is a theme that helps shape this story into an incredibly sweet slow burn.
I liked the organization of the story. It’s a little atypical because Phil and Laurie are introduced individually and their paths do not cross until each character has had several chapters in their own separate environments. This helped me really establish Phil as the London-based, well-to-do stockbroker who gets brutally betrayed by someone he thought he could trust. Then, I get to repeat the “getting to know you fo you” with Laurie as we observe him first suffering from a stroke, then the harrowing prospect of recovering…no small feat for a man who refuses almost all help, but still gets frustrated because he knows he cannot do even small tasks like he could before. Once the two meet, however, we are firmly entrenched in the countryside. Some of Phil’s past crops up and he eventually divulges the details about his betrayal to Laurie. But with the bulk of the story being set on Laurie’s farm, I feel like there is a deeper focus on Laurie’s life and how Phil slowly starts to fit into it. In that regard, I felt like I got a much deeper look into Laurie as a character.
Given the period and the on-page prevalence of gay characters, I really enjoyed the various intersections of sexuality and country life in England. While there is no small amount of focus on Laurie’s fears of being outed and thus somehow becoming “less” in the eyes of the farm folk, I think there is equal, if more subtle, support from that same group. This is a lovely counterpoint to the references and descriptions to the hate Laurie’s biological family shows him. There is a parallel side story involving a runaway who comes to Laurie’s farm, a girl who suffered much the same rejection from her father and finds a welcome place at Laurie’s farm. I liked the mix between homophobic roots and discovering found family. One of my favorite scenes was when Laurie, under heaps of stress, blurts out that he doesn’t think found family is family…and the way the characters handle those feelings. Being a fan of angst, I enjoyed Phil’s reaction, but was just a bit disappointed Laurie’s comment didn’t drive a bigger, more melodramatic reaction from Phil. Nevertheless, I think it does offer a great scene for hurt/comfort fans.
Overall, Taking Stock is a lovely slow-burn romance that features two compelling main characters. It deals with emotional and social betrayal, as well as betrayal of your own body. If you enjoy stories set in rural England, with slow burns, or that examine what societal LGBTQ gains mean to regular people, I think you’d enjoy this book.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Past/Future Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of two great book bundles from Carina Press (you can see the details and full event 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 Past/Future Week here.