Blake is pretty sure that he is gay, at least if his frequent experiments watching gay porn are any indication. But he isn’t positive, and even though his parents and friends would likely be supportive, the idea of coming out is still overwhelming to him. Blake figures if he can get some real world experience that might help him figure it out once and for all. His hope is that an old family friend, Henry, might help him out with a little experimenting, but when that doesn’t pan out, Blake decides to try a hookup app under the pseudonym “Santa” and see if he can find someone interested in showing him the ropes.
Henry just broke up with his boyfriend who was cheating on him, and he is still pretty down. He doesn’t even want to tell anyone about the breakup as he doesn’t want to deal with people’s reactions. When Blake stops by, it adds to Henry’s stress. The two young me were best friends as kids, but middle and high school saw them on divergent paths, with Henry the geeky gay theater kid and Blake the popular jock. Henry is still hurt about how Blake ended their friendship, but despite his irritation, Henry also can’t help crushing on him. Blake’s visit prompts Henry to try getting back out there and at least find a hookup, so he takes to the same dating app, reaching out as Frosty to a guy who is just exploring whether he is gay.
As Blake and Henry begin to talk online, what started for each of them as an attempt to find a hot hook up turns into more. The men are able to share their fears and insecurities with one another in a way they have never been able to do in real life. Henry helps Blake through his uncertainty and confusion about whether he is gay, answering his questions and helping provide a voice of experience. And the two men also explore their online attraction to one another, enjoying lots of sexting and hot pictures and dirty talk.
While both men are getting along great anonymously online, in real life, they are struggling. As their two families head away for a week-long vacation together, the old baggage between them, as well as their individual insecurities, get in the way of even a solid friendship, let alone anything more, despite their mutual attraction. Blake and Henry have fallen for one another online; now they have to figure out if there is a way to take their connection into the real world.
XOXO, Santa is a cute new adult story that sort of falls somewhere between friends and enemies to lovers. While the set up of two people who know one another in real life unknowingly corresponding online isn’t breaking any new ground, Spears gives the story a fun, easy tone with great online interaction between Henry and Blake. There is some nice humor and lightness to their conversations as the men tease and banter with each other, but at the same time, both men share more serious issues and are able to explore their feelings within the anonymity of the internet in a way they can’t in real life. I think there is a nice balance of heat and sexy fun with some more serious exploration of coming out, feeling not good enough, fears of other people’s perceptions, and other issues with which these guys struggle.
The story is told largely in epistolary format through conversations in the online chat between Frosty and Santa. I find this style engaging and, as I said, Spears makes good use of the contrast between the way the men are able to open up and interact online, versus the way they clash in person. Both Blake and Henry really like one another, and are in fact quite attracted to each other, but their anxieties and insecurities keep getting in their way when they try to interact in person. I found their online banter to be fun, and the guys explore a lot of online sexual interaction that is nicely steamy. I know that not everyone enjoys reading lengthy text conversations, and if that is you, this book may lean too heavily in that direction, but I found that the style worked well for me.
Where I struggled here is in the balance between their online and real life interaction. First, the guys struggle with their in-person interaction to the point where there are tons of misunderstandings and situations where if one would just let the other talk, they would resolve problems right away. But instead, there is a lot of jumping to conclusions and the guys being quick to write the other off that got frustrating for me as a reader. Second, the men spend the vast majority of the book not realizing who they are in real life, which means virtually all of their meaningful interaction happens online when they don’t realize who they are. We have basically no time to see their relationship develop in the real world, or to see the aftermath of them getting together and how things play out. I just felt like the balance here falls way too heavily on the men not knowing each other’s identities and then suddenly the reveal comes and the book ends. It left me wondering what the future held for them, as well as how they would integrate their online connection into their real world relationship.
As one last note, while this story has a holiday title and the men converse under Christmas pseudonyms, I really wouldn’t consider this a “holiday story.” There is no real holiday element incorporated into the book, we don’t really see any celebrations, etc. If they had used different online names, there would be virtually zero holiday connection. So that was totally fine with me, but if you are specifically looking for a strong holiday element, be aware that isn’t really a theme here.
Overall, I found this a nice new adult story with a good exploration of the coming out process. I enjoyed the way Henry and Blake are able to open up to each other online and their interactions are a lot of sexy fun. I did wish for more balance on the real life side of things, but I think this is still a nice choice for anyone looking for a light, fun new adult story, particularly if you enjoy an epistolary format.