hands on hanukkah coverRating: 3 stars
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Length: Novel


David Nachem isn’t really feeling this holiday season. Ever since his boyfriend,Tim Mason, broke up with him, David hasn’t felt much like celebrating. Tim loved the holidays so much, it has been hard without him. And the worst part is that David doesn’t even know why they broke up, other than Tim accusing him of lying about something.

Tim is a dancer about to have a major performance and he is definitely not feeling his best. A bad cold has left him stiff and in pain and, with the show less than a week away, Tim needs some help. A friend convinces him to go see David, who is a professional massage therapist, to see if he can help with Tim’s pain. David used to give Tim massages all the time when they were dating, but Tim has never seen him as a patient before this. Despite his anger at David, Tim is also turned on by the massage experience and things turn sexual, which Tim figures is par for the course in David’s job. It is the whole reason Tim broke up with David in the first place; once he learned that David was lying to him and giving “happy ending” massages to clients, Tim was furious and it was all over. But that doesn’t stop the heat from flaring between the men now or keep Tim from coming back for more.

David may have done some sex work ten years ago before he became a licensed therapist, but he has been nothing but professional ever since. He had no idea that Tim thought he was still giving happy endings, but David still feels like he should have come clean with Tim about his past when they were dating. He also knows that he still loves Tim and would love to get back together with him. But ultimately, Tim must decide if he can move beyond David’s past and trust him again, and if so, they may have a chance to rebuild their relationship.

Ok, so I feel like I have a lot to unpack here with this one, and this may be a “your mileage may vary” situation depending on how you feel about various aspects of the story. First off, I picked this one up because it is a Chanukah book and I try to read at least one every year. The holiday is a pretty subtle part of the book and is generally used as a way to reflect David and Tim’s relationship. When the story starts, David is very much not feeling the holidays. He is down about the breakup and the holidays seem to have lost their luster without Tim’s enthusiasm. As things begin to improve between the men, David becomes more into the holiday as well, putting up decorations, lighting the candles, visiting his parents for Chanukah dinner, etc. So I think the holiday is used to nice effect in terms of a symbol of their relationship, but generally it is pretty low key and I think the story would also appeal to readers who aren’t specifically looking for a “holiday” romance.

The biggest concerns here for me intertwined in that I really disliked Tim, and I felt like the resolution never really addresses the issues that caused the problems between him and David in the first place. So the idea is that ten years ago as a young college student, David used to give “happy ending” massages. He knew nothing about professional massage therapy and didn’t fully understand how it differed from sexual massage. However, since starting training and becoming a licensed therapist, David is nothing but professional. He has a medical practice, complete with taking insurance and having “chaperones” in the room for any procedures that are more intimate or may make patients uncomfortable. So the bottom line is that David is and has always been fully professional in his job in every way. However, when he and Tim were dating, he used to give Tim massages that often led to sex. These were not in a professional capacity; Tim had never even been to David’s office. They were massages between boyfriends and, as such, totally different than what David does in his job.

So with that set up, we learn that the breakup happened because someone told Tim that David had once given him a happy ending massage (ten years ago), and Tim immediately assumed that David still does them in his professional capacity, that he lied to Tim about what he really does at work, and that their whole relationship was a lie. So Tim broke up with David without having a single discussion about it or even telling David why he was ending things. Tim just heard something from a random guy at a party and took his word for it, then extrapolated to this whole giant imagined deception by David. Tim’s “proof” of guilt is that David lists pelvic floor massages on his website as one of his services, so clearly that must mean he is a sex worker (because of course, if he was doing illegal sex work AND risking his massage therapy license, he would totally put it on his website). So Tim jumped to conclusions, dropped his boyfriend without even talking to him, and thinks he is dirty liar. Yet when David agrees to book Tim for an appointment to treat his present-day injury, Tim is all for having sex with him as part of it — because David does it with all his clients anyway, right? I found it all just maddening. Tim is judgmental, refuses to communicate, and assumes the worst about the man he was supposed to love. But then, after dumping him because of what he thinks David is doing with his patients, Tim is all too happy to have David give him a hand job during a massage session. And then keeps coming back for more.

What I found even more frustrating is after all of that, the story portrays David as the bad guy here. He feels awful because he didn’t tell Tim about his past (again, ten years ago) and is sure the breakup is all his fault. He is the one apologizing and the story definitely points the blame in his direction. It is his job to prove to Tim that he the work he does is actually professional and medical and not sexual. Tim even goes as far as forcing David to actually give him a pelvic floor massage he doesn’t need just so David can “prove” to him that it is really a clinical procedure and not sex (I’m curious if Tim also assumes all gynecologists and proctologists are having sex with their patients…). And while Tim does acknowledge very late in the story that David didn’t necessarily have an obligation to reveal everything about his past, Tim still doesn’t ever take any responsibility for his own actions — for jumping to conclusions, for taking the word of a stranger, for not bothering to ask David about the situation, for not even telling him why he was breaking it off. So while the men end up back together, I could never believe in their long term happiness when Tim seems to have learned nothing about his mistakes or taken any responsibility for his actions. I found myself angry at him throughout the whole book, even after the men get back together, which made it near impossible for me to enjoy their reuniting.

As an aside, I totally see David’s culpability here in present day. Either Tim is your patient (and he does book an appointment in David’s practice, so that makes him a patient in my mind), or he is your boyfriend. Having sex (or jerking Tim off) during a therapy session is unprofessional and David should have had much better judgement. And slowly hinting about potential sex by touching and longing glances while massaging Tim until he asks for it is not much better. So neither of them is handling this present-day situation well and David definitely deserves some blame for muddying the waters when the guys start to make their way back together. Of course, David has no idea that Tim thinks he is still doing sex work, and no idea that is why Tim broke up with him, so he is unaware this is a charged issue between them. I also don’t think he is to blame for the break up in the first place. But regardless, neither of these men behave particularly well here.

I think more character development could have helped all of this, but we learn only a minimum about each of these men. The story is mostly a series of encounters between them where they meet under the auspices of a massage therapy appointment and end up hooking up. So we do get a good sense of what they are both thinking now and how they are feeling about what is going on, but I don’t feel like we get a lot of depth about either of them. And I do think that would have helped, at least in understanding their behavior and their actions more clearly and possibly making them more appealing for me as characters.

As I said, I think some readers are going to enjoy this one, particularly if you are just looking for the lovers reunited, sexy massage type vibe. If Tim’s behavior, past and present, doesn’t really bother you, I think this one would work a lot better for you than for me. But I really struggled with him as a character, and honestly, the whole set up. It felt sex shaming for David’s past, Tim rushes to judgment and is completely unable to communicate, and then both men make terrible decisions in their quest to rekindle their relationship. And with David and Tim never talking through it and really acknowledging their mistakes, I just found it hard to get fully on board with them reuniting and having a lasting love.

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