In the fifteen years Josiah has been in love with Denny, he’s become a pro at being there for his best friend after the demise of a marriage. Offer to hang out for the weekend at Denny’s cabin? Check. Drink beers, smoke weed, and grill? Check. Ride the tumultuous ball of elation, shame, and guilt he feels, while smiling and hiding how deeply in love with Denny he is? Double check. Same script, different woman. However, when an unexpected moment of intimacy leaves Josiah raw and shattered, it causes a shift in their friendship he simply can’t hide.
More confused and upset by the sudden change in Josiah than the death of his third marriage, Denny grapples for clues as to what happened. When his new therapist helps Denny recognize his bisexuality, everything comes into focus…and becomes so much more complicated. With the help of their best friend, Sammie, and their found family from Josiah’s bar, The Hoppy Hare, Denny and Josiah must learn to navigate the changing dynamics of their long-time friendship if they hope to retain the most meaningful relationship in their lives and, potentially, find the lifelong partnership they’ve both longed for.
Bar None is a feel-good story with very likeable characters. Denny, Josiah, and Josiah’s employees (AKA “the kids”) are a wonderfully tight-knit group. Frankly, all the secondary characters (even tertiary) are warm, funny, and make me want to just hug each and every one of them. As the narrative is more focused on showcasing the joys of found family, support, and the power of community and unconditional love, even the curveballs are used to convey care and friendship as opposed to creating extreme angst or tension. Of course, Josiah and Denny’s relationship is the poster child for this as the decisions they make are almost always based in trying to take care of the other person.
While many friends-to-lover stories featuring a “default straight” character have him going from confused to a “natural” at deepthroating in no time, Fielding takes a more atypical route by having Denny and Josiah want time to process what Denny’s bisexuality means to Denny personally and its potential effects on their relationship. They place any ideas of dating and sex on the backburner, and more importantly, they stick to it! There are no promises of going slowly, quickly followed by a mad dash to the bed, floor, counter, etc. Nor is the slow burn a product of denial or discomfort, and I appreciated that. I also enjoyed Fielding’s incorporation of therapy, as besides being dedicated to warm fuzzies and human kindness, Bar None is also a love letter to therapy, which is presented as a useful way to gain clarity and understanding, rather than being a crutch that only broken people need.
Oddly enough, though Denny is the one to seek out a therapist, Josiah is the one who has more page time/sessions him; moreover, Josiah’s personality seems to change. In the beginning, Josiah is self assured and put together, but by the end, there are times when he’s not childish per se, but regressed, for lack of a better way to put it. Less confident, more anxious—just strange in a way I can’t quite explain; it almost feels like he’s a compilation of two characters. Technically, the therapy and the ghosts from his past can account for some behavior deviations, but they seem less situational and more like personality changes. For me, it made his character feel a bit inconsistent. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Denny, who, despite literally having a life-altering epiphany, remains pretty even-keeled more or less. However, each character has a moment where a specific type of trait is introduced (seemingly) for the sake of the scene, which also doesn’t help. And while I like Josiah and Denny, the wobbliness in their portrayal regarding anything other than being really sweet and caring make them feel like flat, good-guy stand-ins for the fleshed-out, complex characters I think Fielding was aiming for, so I couldn’t fully connect to them.
Another contributor to my lack of connection is that despite the perceived emotional stakes from the situation and the characters’ own words, there really aren’t any. The blurb asks:
“How can they stick together during troubling times and everything between Denny and Josiah is up in the air like never before?”
The answer? Easily. Josiah and Denny are placed into a forced proximity situation at the beginning of that uncertain transition period in their relationship, a prime setup to explore the different reality that Denny’s newfound awareness of Josiah’s love for him and his bisexuality create. However, most potential issues are handled in Josiah’s therapy sessions and aside from a few longings for closeness, nothing changes. They’re still best friends and they turn to each other as they always have when the curveballs come. I’m not saying this is a bad thing and it definitely fits the tone of the book, it just seems like a missed opportunity to add nuance to the story and the characters’ unique predicament.
Additionally, there are other structural elements that make the story a bit uneven and pulled me out of its gooey goodness. There are a few rough transitions or places where elements and/or characters seem forced in. Seemingly relevant ideas, facts, etc. are mentioned, then dropped or appear randomly without context. Often, the dialogue is stilted and feels unnatural, and there were quite a few grammatical oddities such as:
“Denny watched at him…”
“…you were having hard time answering to my questions…”
There were also instances of words missing from phrases or expressions that I found distracting.*
Though some of the individual components of Bar None didn’t work for me, overall, it’s a charming read. Denny is adorably clueless and both guys are super caring, compassionate, and generous, and their relationship with Sammie is #friendshipgoals. The book is full of touching acts of kindness, and there are plenty of interesting characters I‘d like to learn more about. So if you want something simple and sweet that shows the best of humanity, you may enjoy Bar None.
* Note: It is not clear if our review copy was a final version and this issues may have been addressed in the published version.