Story Rating: 4.5 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Glen Lloyd
Length: 6 hours, 17 minutes
Jordan O’Neil has fought hard to own his many, MANY, labels—gay, introvert, anxious, quirky (and its myriad subsets)—but he is not a fan of them. The thought of adding asexual to this plethora makes him alternately hopeful and ragey. Yet, when his best friend Merry drags him to an ace support group, the feeling of being seen and known for the first time in ages is overwhelming—almost as overwhelming as officially meeting “Headphones Guy,” the fellow passenger on his bus he’s been crushing on.
Headphones Guy Hennessey Lang knows first-hand how difficult it is being asexual in an allosexual world, a world that defines “normal” sexual behavior as wanting/needing sex and often conflates it with love, intimacy, and HEAs. He’s also grateful to have found a queer aro/ace focused support group to help him along the way and recognizes how important the group was to him accepting and being at peace with himself. So when Hennessey moves to a new town (after breaking up with another schmuck convinced his D-game will “fix” him), he decides to pay it forward by starting his own support group.
Jordan’s anxiety and unease during the group meeting immediately reminds Hennessey of his own struggles, and he can’t help but be drawn to him. When they next meet on the bus and they connect over a love of books, Jordan’s humor and intelligence makes him even more intriguing. Jordan being an “asexual, book-loving gay man” makes him almost irresistible to Hennessey, but he’s reluctant to get involved with Jordan since he’s in an emotionally vulnerable place, and Hennessey is his support group leader. However, neither man can resist the warmth and giddiness their five minutes together a day causes, whether brief snatches of eye contact or short conversations, and soon they are going on “friendly outings.”
For Jordan, rather than being the burden he expected, his new label is like the answer to all his dating woes and the insecurities caused by his sexual “abnormality,” and the overall ease and comfort of his relationship with Hennessy amplifies this feeling. Unfortunately, Jordan equates sharing the ace label with uniformity of experience, and until he realizes sharing a sexuality doesn’t make the tough parts of building a lasting relationship (like openness, communication, vulnerability) any easier than sharing any other label, he still may not find his HEA.
Upside Down is the sweet, feel-good story I didn’t know I desperately needed. Jordan and Hennessey are absolutely adorable together, and the fact that they spend a large portion of their “getting to know you” time in these mini-meetings on the bus is too delightful; just ask the Soup Crew, fellow bus passengers who get as caught up in Hennessey and Jordan’s blushing banter and quirky courtship as I did. The Soup Crew, the besties, even random shop workers and store owners make up a cast of endearing secondary characters that add to the overall charm and happiness of the story. The narrative simply beams its message of how powerful acceptance, love, support, friendship, found family, and respect are. I mean, it’s the literary equivalent of getting smacked in the face with Care Bears’ love rays.
N.R. Walker does an excellent job of balancing this lovingly gooey atmosphere with Jordan’s high-strung personality, delightful, compulsive use of the word mother*cker, and his borderline exasperating sense of the dramatic. Jordan is A LOT, but he’s so loveable with his nervous rambling, sweet blushes, and generous heart that he’s the ultimate package of perfect imperfection. Hennessey, with his effortless confidence and composure, is equally charming in his way, and the absolute joy he takes in Jordan being Jordan and his desire to show Jordan that he is wonderful just the way he is, is ridiculously satisfying. I also enjoyed that Walker did not feel the need to add additional angst to the story with too much “evil ex” drama; the appearance of Hennessey’s ex is handled believably and doesn’t detract from the innate complications Jordan’s self-discovery bring to their relationship.
As for narrator Glen Lloyd’s performance—OMG, he absolutely NAILS Jordan and the overall tone of the story. His portrayal of Jordan’s rambling monologues is simply *chef’s kiss* perfection; if Lloyd didn’t have fun with this character, then he is one of the most believable actors out there. His delivery of Jordan’s nonsensical gems like “his name is Hans Solo Gruber and he’s an intergalactic German terrorist smuggler, living in the Nakatomi Cantina—” is worth the price of admission alone. Fortunately, Lloyd’s ability to convey the smiles and affection in Hennessey and Jordan’s voices when they’re discussing their feelings with their friends, as well as even more nuanced tones, such as exasperated affection or gentle understanding, makes sure the heart and love Walker weaves into the story comes across for the reader. The only thing that keeps it from being a full fiver for me is that a few female characters sound a bit too similar at times, but Lloyd also doesn’t make them sound high-pitched and whiny like many male narrators, so it’s still a win.
Upside Down is romantic, funny, and full of organic representation in its many forms. If you’re in the mood for a feel-good story full of ridiculous romcom-esque bus riders, a librarian who channels Samuel L. Jackson with every breath, and an easy-going internet ninja (ask Jordan) with a penchant for helping people, paired with a performance that conveys the hilarity, charm, and “ridiculously, grossly, fucking happy” vibe of the story wonderfully, then I wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook.