Tim Whittaker grew up with Jacob “Jake” Thorn and, by extension, Jacob’s older brother, Caleb. Over the years, Tim and Jake have been through highs and lows. For Tim, the biggest of both is arguably his love for Jake. It’s a high because he comes to life when he’s around Jake, but it’s also a low because Tim never realized the depth of his feelings until Jake had a steady girlfriend and got engaged. Tim knows it’s the worst timing, but he is convinced that he can press his suit with Jake if Tim can just get Jake to confront the attraction that he knows boils away under Jake’s surface.
Jake Thorn knows he’s made a mess of his relationship with Tim. Sure, maybe he engaged in a bit of experimentation with Tim from time to time. Maybe Jake did crave Tim’s attention. But he knows he is in love with his fiancee. Hopefully, Jake can count on Caleb to be the brother, the ally that Jake needs. Except when Caleb finally learns about the sexual tension between Jake and Tim, Caleb is less than helpful. Jake accuses him of siding with Tim and even having a thing for the man. It doesn’t take much for Jake to convince himself that Caleb is less interested in offering his brotherly support and more interested in hooking up with Jake’s brother, or Jake’s future father-in-law (David), or both.
Caleb Thorn has carried a chip on his shoulder over the way he believes Jake has and continues to be coddled as the baby in the family. Eight years Caleb’s junior, it seems like Jake was never denied anything. So when David makes a pass at Caleb, Caleb ultimately decides to get what he wants. Caleb wants to see where a relationship with the older man could go. Just as long as both Caleb and David can get past the awkwardness of Caleb being the brother of the man David’s daughter is going to marry. And if Caleb can stomach being something of a secret lover.
Thorns in my Side is a contemporary story that is brimming with…let’s call them entanglements—both romantic and sexual. There is a curious mix of what I think of a garment-ripping-desire and a healthy dose of “red flags” ala AITA on reddit. An example of the former is how Caleb lets off steam by hooking up with his ex for a night. An example of the latter is how Tim and Jake engage in sexual activities behind Jake’s fiancee’s back. I think the mix between complex character interrelationships (life-long friendship shown only as it’s falling apart, established couples, a seeming blindspot to the entire concept of “bisexual” to describe several of the characters) and the noticeable brevity in the overall story sort of encourages my criticalness of these two types of interaction (plain old garment-ripping versus what I perceive as red flags).
There are three romantic pairing possibilities that get addressed in the book: Tim/Jake (possible best friends to lovers), Tim/Caleb (possible fell-for-my-best-friend’s-sibling), David/Caleb (age difference AND fell-for-my-brother’s-parent-in-law). Each one is packed with the potential for nuance. For example, at first I thought Tim was gay and secretly pining after Jake, but only revealed his love for Jake when Jake announced he and his fiancee were getting married. As it turns out, Jake has a history of getting blowjobs from Tim. It also turns out Tim isn’t into men before he falls for Jake. But then these two spend a night together having sex while Jake’s fiancee is out of town because that’s how you deal with unrequited (?) love.
Clearly there are multiple layers to the relationships between each pairing. I just didn’t feel like the 90 pages of this book was sufficient time to get the full angst and melodrama each pairing contained. The history between Tim and Jake, for example, is decades long, but it’s meted out in a way that I got blindsided by some of that history (e.g. that Tim didn’t really identify as gay). It was less of an issue with David (despite having been married to a woman for 20 years and fathering a child with her) because he is first introduced to Caleb on page. As a result, any “surprise!” elements there felt more natural because I was finding out about them at the same time as Caleb was.
Even so, I think the sort of “glossing” of their histories and picking out eventful past experiences during the many one-to-one discussions/confrontations helped keep me interested in the story. In addition, of course, to finding out if and when one of the characters would finally/actually win over a romantic conquest. For readers who like the tropes these three relationships represent, you’ll probably enjoy this even though the details feel a bit thin at times.