Months after getting caught in the blast radius of a car bomb, photojournalist Scott Rowe is just starting to recover physically. Part of Scott wants to get on with his life, with his photography. But a larger part of him has not yet processed the scope of the trauma he’s suffered. With most of his injuries largely healed—he can see out of his right eye and his arm only needs a sling, anyway—his medical doctors have suggested seeing an osteopathic physician. That is, someone who works with the entire body as a whole. Dr. Jason Andrews comes highly recommended and Scott soon learns the man is also highly motivated to help his clients. Just one visit brings more relief to Scott than he ever anticipated. Something about Dr. Andrews calms Scott. It’s more than the aromatherapy, than the hot stones he places in Scott’s constantly cold hands, the way he doesn’t just look at Scott, but sees him. During treatments with Dr. Andrews, Scott flies away and experiences…snippets of history like they are lucid dreams, or maybe his own memories. And that brings Scott tantalizingly close to understanding how he can get back to himself.
Dr. Jason Andrews helps patients with more than just healing their bodies; he helps them heal their minds, also. Jason is nothing if not determined to help Scott process both what Scott experienced and the guilt of surviving where Scott’s interpreter did not. With Scott’s permission, Jason tries many techniques to help Scott’s mind and body fully heal. It’s a slow process, one that brings doctor and patient close. But once treatment is concluded, they continue to maintain open lines of communication. Jason is eager to hear about Scott’s progress with more mainstream coping mechanisms, like sound-related therapy and floating in a sensory deprivation chamber. Scott wants to share the beginning of his journey back into photography. Without the doctor/patient barrier between them, the two build a strong friendship. But with Scott diving back into photojournalism then travel photography, it seems like Jason will never get a chance for something more with his former client.
Did It All Before is a contemporary, very slow-burn romance from author Cynthia Hamill. It features two British main characters and largely takes place in London, England. The whole book is shot through with elements of science fantasy, courtesy of the quasi-dream-like experiences Scott has during treatments in Jason’s office. The first one or two of these “dreams” felt like just that…Scott being relaxed into a semi-lucid state and dreaming. For me, I thought these were meant to be symbols representing how Scott was or wasn’t processing his trauma, grief, and survivor’s guilt. But there are several of these episodes throughout the book and the more often they happen, almost exclusively with Jason during treatment, the more they took on a quality of being past lives. I thought Hamill presented a wide array of time periods and interactions in these dream-like scenes. To me, they felt like poignant vignettes in the lives being showcased: a Native American woman running to save the life of a baby, a painter in love with his royal subject, an army doctor trying to help a colonial woman give birth, a pair of young choirboys who wanted nothing more than to spend their days together but get ripped apart. These scenes make for an incredibly rich and dense text that readers can ponder and mull as to how it may represent Scott’s past, present, and/or future.
Although the story is largely a huge slow burn, Scott does admit to a bit of a thing for Jason early on. For me, it was strange that the doctor/patient non-fraternization thing didn’t come up until about halfway through the book. To be clear, I did not get any sense of instalove from the two MCs, nor was there any real sexual tension during Scott’s treatments with Jason. Rather, Scott simply appreciated that Jason is an attractive person. But the nature of the work they do, the way Scott nearly always responds positively to Jason’s treatments, the way Jason seems so invested in Scott’s progress (irrespective of what doctor/treatment Scott is receiving and, later, regardless of whether Scott is Jason’s patient at all)—I regret to admit I half thought I’d read about a wayward appendage once or twice. That couldn’t be further from what unfolds, however. Jason is nothing but professional and once the subject finally gets voiced, the non-fraternization thing immediately puts the kibosh on anything more than strictly professional meetings. Still, as a reader, it felt a bit odd that this wasn’t cleared up much earlier.
With our two love interests basically thinking the other is off limits for various reasons at various points (non-fraternization, off-page dates with other men, photos of apparent partners), it was hugely satisfying when they finally are able to come together as more than just friends. I also liked the timing. Scott was finally comfortable going out in the world, taking photographs, and having fun with work and the people he worked with. He even found a Mr. Right Now. But eventually, Scott realized that that was all part of his healing…and he still had one big hurdle to jump: how to symbolically let go of his past. I loved the scenes where Scott realized what he needed to do, where he needed to do it. That he immediately calls on Jason’s friendship as he finally takes his last step out of his old life and the first one into his new one. That just made the ensuing realization that he and Jason can actually be more than friends so much sweeter. These two already had such great intimacy and trust, having them finally get on the same page romantically was pretty cathartic. Personally, I also liked that the physical intimacy didn’t exactly fade to black. It actually felt like it reflected some of the same dreamlike quality of Scott’s “dreams” or “past lives” or whatever. It felt like a great way to bring the themes together in a “full circle” kind of way.
Overall, I was impressed with the range and depth of emotion Scott experiences. While I had expectations that, by the end of the book, Scott and Jason would be together and Scott would have fully processed his grief, I wasn’t prepared for watching it all unfold from an osteopathic treatment perspective (A bit “woo-woo” as Scott describes). The professional, personal, and eventually romantic relationship between Scott and Jason is sweet and full of supportive enthusiasm (especially from Jason, who seems hard-wired to accept everyone’s everything). If you’re looking for deeply character driven story starring a man who’s trying to pull himself together following a traumatic event that left him physically and mentally scarred, if you like slow-burns (with a smattering of “we could have been together all along if only…”), if you like the idea of past lives, then I think you’ll enjoy Did It All Before.