Derek O’Reilly’s life could not have been more different from that of his neighbors, the Lunds. From Derek’s perspective, the Lunds seemed perfect. A mother who wore lipstick every day, a father who spent time with his children, and three kids. Derek was constantly in the orbit of the Lunds for several reasons. The youngest of the Lund children, their daughter, Lene, had a wild crush on him. Conversely, Derek developed a deep and unrequited crush on their oldest son, Nick. And the middle Lund, Boone, was Derek’s best friend.
But it has been seventeen years since Derek had anything to do with the Lunds. He’d grown up, gotten his dream job as an accountant, and even found an extremely handsome man who wants nothing more than to marry Derek. He should be happy. He thought he was happy. With the exception of his Aunt Fran starting to clearly lose her battle with cancer, Derek is happy. He is. But when Aunt Fran visits Derek at the expensive and exclusive condo he shares with his ever-absent boyfriend, she gifts him with an old binder. In it are the musings of a tweenage Derek that cover, in glorious detail, his own family’s struggles and his exploits with the Lunds. And they are written as letters to his little brother; letters that could never be delivered because his mother suffered a miscarriage that changed the dynamic of the O’Reilly family. His mother struggled with depression, his father escaped the home with a far-away work assignment, leaving his Aunt Fran to pick up the parental slack.
As Derek rehashes old memories, he is reminded of his first, unrequited love—Nickolai Lund. Before long, he is reanalyzing his relationship with his current boyfriend and questioning his choices. The self-reflection grows more intense as his beloved Aunt Fran’s condition deteriorates further. The one saving grace is a coincidental run-in with his childhood best friend, Boone Lund. Perhaps, if Derek can rekindle that ages-old friendship, Derek might find a way to navigate the worst year of his life.
Split is the first book in the Red and Blue Chronicles by Mel Bossa. If the series name seems familiar, it’s because some of the other titles (A Purple Winter and Persimmon Kiss) have been reviewed for the blog previously. I picked this book because I instantly remembered a meddling aunt named Fran and two will-they-won’t-they lovers kept apart by circumstance and wondered if this was the same book being rereleased or a pre/sequel to that same story. Even two years later, I still remembered the intrigue of Derek’s inner turmoil and romantic/personal drama. And it turns out, Split is the book where all that drama began. I was excited to go back to the beginning of this series…especially since A Purple Winter already seemed to cover the early years of the Derek/Nick relationship. After having read this book, I am intrigued to see where the series goes…first and foremost because the Derek/Nick romance is an incredibly slow burn. Part of this is because Derek is literally a tweenager at 12 years old when the letters start and he is just discovering sexual desire in any capacity for himself for the first time. The slow burn is further extended by Derek’s and Nick’s present-day situations. The former is in a long-term relationship with another man. The latter is still mostly estranged from his family and when he learns a one-night stand had some, shall we say, unintended consequences, he fears it may be a dealbreaker for starting a relationship with Derek. I do have one nuts-and-bolts criticism: there were a few typos in the text, small things like a dropped word here or duplicated words there. None of these were detrimental to the story, but knowing I was reading a re-release, I was just surprised at finding any noticeable slips like that.
So. This book. I love the format. We flip-flop between Derek’s past (circa 1987) and the present (seventeen years later, so 2004). The former is told through letters Derek wrote to the brother he never had. Personally, I think just choosing this epistolary approach was just brilliant and subtly heart wrenching. It clearly conveys, to me at least, the depth to which Derek’s mother’s miscarriage affects all three members of the O’Reilly family. It demonstrates Derek’s need/desire for the kind of familial connection he observes in the Lunds, probably because Derek sees Nick as an unwavering source of protection and love (which, I think, is well shown in on-page interactions between Nick and everyone). I think we also get a sense of Derek’s despair over his emotionally estranged mother, who ultimately seems to cope with her depression by finding Jesus. Derek’s letters also show that Derek’s father choses escapism as his mechanism for dealing with the situation, going to the Hudson Bay for work for several months…not technically abandoning the family, as he is pulling in more money than before, but certainly being emotionally and physically distant.
The present isn’t exactly a consistent bookend snipped for each of the letters to Derek’s brother; rather, the book starts in the present, then switches mostly into epistolary memories suffused with the occasional paragraph or two in the present. These quick bursts of present day largely detail how Derek’s relationship with his boyfriend is externally picture perfect and internally bereft of real emotion. The further we read, the closer we get to the end of the letters in that binder and the more time we spend in the present. The present-day drama grows to include Aunt Fran’s failing health and Derek’s reconnecting with Boone Lund and most of the other Lunds. Present day Nick seems like an unfaithful character on the fringes of the story. His family accepts that Nick has distanced himself and we, the reader, learn it’s probably due to his first lover having died. As a reader, I am intensely curious to learn more about the relationship between Nick and his first love. I am also intensely curious about Derek’s feelings on the topic because he seems to harbor zero jealousy about the whole thing. At the end, though, there is a sweet, if somewhat whirlwind, get together for Derek and Nick.
Overall, I was engrossed with the story of Derek and Nick. I loved watching the story unfold through letters, which detailed so much more than just “gee, I really have a thing for Nick.” The richness of detail in Derek’s letters to his brother was just superb. I think the present day scenes also feel like a natural extension of Derek, drawing on how his extreme introvertedness has led him into a relationship of convenience and how he sublimates his desires to keep the status quo…and eventually realizing he neither likes nor will he settle for the status quo. Based on my recollections of A Purple Winter, which (again) is a book towards the end of the series, I am excited to see how this baseline story gets embellished and/or built upon. If you love stories that feature coming-of-age characters (Derek), bisexual characters (Nick), or explorations of having and coping with non-visible disabilities (a stutter for Derek and dyslexia for Nick), then I think you’ll enjoy this book.