Today Jay and Michelle are sharing a Buddy Review of The Jock by Tal Bauer. Check out the overview and then each of their reviews below.
Wes Van de Hoek has known two things for most of this life: that he is gay, and that the only way out of his small west Texas town is through football. He has worked hard his whole life to succeed on the field, and that includes focusing on football and nothing else. That hard work has paid off, and now Wes is set to be a starter in his junior year at one of the top football programs in the country. He has no plans to come out, at least not until after college and he gets a degree. But that changes when he meets Justin Swanscott.
Wes and Justin both are on a three-week summer trip to Paris for study abroad and end up as roommates. The two men click and they soon find themselves spending long days exploring Paris and their nights learning one another. Wes has never been with anyone, man or woman, but the magic of Paris has him taking the leap as he falls head-over-heels for Justin. Being across the world from home and responsibilities gives Wes a chance to break free of hiding and live for a few weeks happy and in love in Paris.
The men know that Wes can’t come out at home right now, but they figure they can keep their relationship quiet back at school. But as the season starts, it is nothing like either man expects. Wes is named one of the top players in the country. The media scrutinizes his every move. And his coach makes it clear that Wes’ role is to help carry his team to victory, a victory that will help bring his teammates along to greatness as well. Wes feels so much pressure, wanting to take care of his team and carrying a huge burden on his shoulders. But as much as he loves football, Wes’ heart belongs completely to Justin. Now he has to figure out how he can have both the game that has shaped his whole life, and the man he has come to love.
Rating: 5 stars
Oh, did I love this one. This story reminded me of all the things I love about Tal Bauer’s writing and I found myself completely captivated with this book. I have read many variations on this theme before — closeted jock faces a choice between his love of the game and the love of his man. But the way Bauer crafts this story with so much depth and nuance, it really elevates it beyond the common trope to something just fabulous.
The book starts with Justin and Wes in Paris and I could completely believe in their love as they fall hard and fast for one another. It is only a few weeks, but the allure of the city, combined with them spending essentially every moment together, gives the men a chance to find that deep connection. There can be such magic to a summer relationship, and it comes through so well here. I loved seeing Wes open up for the first time, to see that he can have this connection with Justin, that he is in a safe place to explore. The thrill he gets from holding Justin’s hand or sharing a look as they walk through the market is just so sweet and lovely. I was all in with these guys from those early days in Paris and it sets things up well for their return home.
I think one of the things that makes this story work so well is that Bauer creates a conflict that is more than just fear of being found out, or worries about coming out. Wes is not just a football player; he is THE football player. His face is on signs for hundreds of miles. His plays are on ESPN every night. He is one of the top players in the nation and all eyes are on him. The coach makes it clear that Wes’ life is not his own. The hopes and dreams of every player on his team are placed on Wes’ shoulders and he is told it is his job to carry them. The sheer terror Wes feels when he realizes the weight of those expectations is just palpable. He loves football, but he loves Justin more. But Wes fears coming out will throw off his team and he will let them all down and he can’t let that happen. On top of that, football is Wes’ only hope for college and making a life for himself outside of his small town. He has to stay on the team in order to keep his scholarship. My heart just broke for Wes feeling so much burden of responsibility. He is so sweet and caring and gentle and feels so overwhelmed.
The person holding Wes together is Justin. They are so fiercely in love, so deeply committed to one another. Again, I could just feel that connection between them and the way they light up around one another. Bauer really develops their relationship so beautifully and I rooted for them every minute. Even as they go through some ups and downs, I could never doubt the intensity of their feelings. I just adored Wes and Justin together, and Bauer manages to give them that blush of young love, but also make me believe that they were a couple who could make it for life.
There are some great side characters here. I loved the development of Justin’s relationship with his father and how that evolves. It gives a nice focus for Justin’s character beyond his relationship with Wes. I also loved the bonds Wes has with his teammates. Bauer really captures that connection they have with one another and the way they form a family and a unit. The sports aspects of the story feel well grounded, and while there is not a ton of football time, the whole thing felt very authentic and really enhanced the story. I loved the little details, like how much these guys eat on a given day, that really bring it all to life.
So as you can tell, I just went crazy for this one. I couldn’t put it down and I was totally captivated by the romance and the larger story. It’s swoony and lovely and just so sweet. Bauer has such a way of drawing me into his books and bringing the settings and characters to life with such rich detail. This is one of my favorite books I have read all year and I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4.5 stars
I’ve read many of Tal Bauer’s books and The Jock is a bit of a departure from the style I am used to from him. Where I typically find a suspense and action style from this author, Wes and Justin’s story is character focused and relationship driven and I really liked this one.
Told in dual points of view from both Wes and Justin, there was great depth to their characters. Meeting in Paris over the summer, it was easy to get caught up in them falling in love in only a few weeks. Wes knows that he is gay, but football was the only way out of small town Texas and he has no intention of coming out while he is in college. He’s ranked as the one of the greatest, if not the greatest, college football player and when he becomes captain of the team his junior year, the pressure on him to carry the team is intense. Wes is remarkable in that he’s not even sure he wants to play in the NFL, but his teammates do, and when the team wins, everyone wins, and the coach has let Wes know that all of this rests on Wes’ shoulders.
Justin is a nursing student and a dancer and has no interest in jocks or cowboys, but Wes becomes everything to him. Justin falls hard and fast and then Justin becomes Wes’ lifeline when everything starts to overwhelm him. Wes is the perfect mix of jock and cowboy and his down home charm captivates Justin completely. Bauer also shows how bonded Wes is to his teammates, both on and off the field, and Wes has such a sense of duty and obligation to live up to what is expected of him and his sacrifices are wearing him down. Wes thinks he’s doing the right thing by not coming out and has the best of intentions. When the entire situation gets out of control and things escalate, I was disappointed by the reactions of all of his teammates, as well as his coach, and then there were also a couple of pivotal areas that came across as way too convenient for me. We also see Justin’s relationship develop with his father and I also would have liked to see more page time for Wes’ relationship with his father.
There was enough tension and turmoil to keep me hooked and while the ending does leave Wes and Justin in a good place, their story does end in the moment and, while I could see them being together forever, I would have liked their story to have extended a little further into the future. Overall, The Jock is an excellent new offering from Tal Bauer and it’s effortless to get lost in Wes and Justin’s world.