After the first episode of his mother’s cognitive decline ended with his cousin dead, Ethan’s family cut both his mother and him out of their lives. Since then, Ethan has given up his dream of becoming a veterinarian and he now works multiple part-time jobs to stay afloat. Then, his boss at his yard-care gig gives him a simple job at the home of a reclusive, scandalized, former Olympic hopeful named Victor. For Ethan, the job is a bittersweet reminder of how he and his late cousin obsessively followed the career of that particular swimmer…and how Danny died before Victor’s spectacular, drug-addled fall. Ethan never thought for one minute that he would actually meet the swimmer, but that is exactly what happens. As the old memories and nostalgia swamp him, Ethan also is confronted with a man who is far more twisted than the all-American image presented on TV years ago. Before he can even finish trimming the hedges, Ethan gets the most outlandish proposition from the most unlikely of places…one that might change his world, and his mother’s world, for the better.
Swimming was everything to Victor. Even after being banned from the sport, he lived for the water. It was the only thing that allowed him escape…from his overbearing father, from his demanding coach, from his hard-partying swimming teammates. Even if he can only indulge in the activity in his own swimming pool now. The scandal that ended his career was buttoned up, thanks to his wealthy father’s influence. Getting through that ordeal was supposed to be the end of it for Victor. Now, however, his father wants to launch a new dating app. And he wants Victor in a fake relationship with the gardening service guy to sell it. Victor hopes that if he cooperates, his father will finally leave him alone. But the media hype surrounding his reemergence into society gives his father grander ideas that involve doing publicity in Italy…and taking the gardener/fake boyfriend with him. At least Victor gets to enjoy needling Ethan about anything and everything.
Victor is rather surprised when this nobody from nowhere manages to intuit the insecurities that Victor harbors. What’s more, instead of returning Victor’s vicious treatment with equal vitriol, Ethan is accommodating. Being seen sets Victor on edge, but he also finds himself wanting to have someone truly on his side. But being back in the public eye brings his history back to the fore and some enterprising internet sleuths may have hit on a scandal that would blow Victor’s drug use story to smithereens. Suddenly, Victor once again finds himself having to make hard sacrifices to keep others happy.
Hold Me Under is a contemporary, enemies-to-lovers, fake boyfriend story set partly in Seattle and mainly in Italy. It’s the first book in Nash’s Water, Air, Earth, Fire series. The story is told in alternating first-person narration, flipping between Ethan and Victor. I thought Ethan was very relatable, very working class, and willing to give up everything to try to help his mom. From his narration, it was easy to understand just how much of a toll her cognitive decline is having, yet he is not willing (or really financially capable) of getting her round the clock care or having her live in a special care facility. Every day, he lives a lie where his beloved cousin Danny did not drown and he goes to work every day interning at a local vet’s office. All because he knows the truth his mother cannot remember day to day would cause her fresh grief every day. Reality is grinding for him, and yet he does it without complaint, thankful for the help he gets from the people he’s found along the way.
Victor is a massive puzzle. Knowing that Ethan had a crush on a young, Olympic bound swimmer made me want to see the good in him. Yet from the very beginning, it was easy to see Victor has serious issues. He seems to work at being unlikeable, for one thing. It helps keep people at a distance. The immaculate looking home he lives in is actually a gilded cage. And the parts he actually lives in are less cage and more of a rat’s nest because he can only feel comfortable in environments he can control. He is deeply cynical and distrustful. He very clearly acts like someone who wants to prevent bridges from being built in the first place, so no one can burn them later on. But all that is just what you glean from his living conditions and how he interacts with the people who have always been in his life–his father and his father’s lawyer specifically. With Ethan, Victor is mostly just cruel. Knowing that was Victor’s attitude (this gardener guy can’t help me, so let’s show him the shit show from the beginning) made it very interesting to watch as Victor’s father demands Victor play along in a bigger publicity stunt for the dating app, while offering Ethan staggering sums of money to play fake boyfriend.
I suspected early on Victor has enormous trust issues. Nash does a very good job of describing situations and how Victor reacts to them that help the reader guess where those trust issues came from. That said, I was not entirely prepared to discover the truth about what and how these trust issues started. It becomes abundantly clear towards the end of the book that a carefully fabricated reality where Olympic hopeful Victor fails a drug test is not the whole truth. After I learned what happened to Victor, it was only too easy to understand why he behaved as he did…and why he was willing to give up so much just to try to fade into the background again. Content warning: if you are sensitive to , you may want to think carefully before reading this.
The dynamic Victor and Ethan have is explosive. As mentioned above, Victor endlessly needles Ethan as a defensive mechanism. Neither one of them think their arrangement is anything more or less than a way for Ethan to make some quick money and Victor’s father to assure his new online app has a successful launch. Yet they seem drawn to each other. Victor himself marvels at how he finds himself letting his guard down around Ethan (and by “let his guard down,” I mean he very literally feels safe enough to fall asleep on a private jet…which I say is not exactly a soul-bearing activity, but is huge for Victor). Similarly, Ethan himself feels like every interaction with Victor is a battle yet Victor’s father and the lawyer both tell Ethan that Victor behaves more positively towards Ethan than he has towards anyone else in a long time.
The bulk of the “romance,” if it can be called that when our two MCs are on tenterhooks for so much of the book, happens in Italy. The trip starts off with both of them coolly or cruelly indifferent towards each other. Nothing seems likely to change until one night when they end up skipping town and have some time completely away from the expectations of Victor’s father and a random run-in with Victor’s former swimming teammates. It’s not a complete 180, but they put aside the bullshit and connect with each other for a hot minute. And it turns out they have pretty good chemistry once they learn how to interact with each other (or, more specifically, Ethan learns how to communicate in a way that won’t trigger Victor). Victor’s past trauma means their growing attachment is strictly behind closed doors after the day is done. That it’s often couched in uncomplimentary language, like Victory offering to show Ethan how to “hurt him” the right way, or saying they hate each other. But still, there is a connection growing there. And it was exciting to read about the truth of Victor’s past coming out once that connection just begins to thrive, when Ethan’s time as paid fake-boyfriend is well and truly terminated and Victor is convinced his past means no one could love him.
Overall, this was a very well crafted story. The characters are intense in many ways. Victor and Ethan are shaped and guided by their past experiences. Their getting together is a complete fabrication, but they are surprised to find a sliver of normalcy, a tiny bit of time where they can just be together. It’s what drives both men and their actions at the end. And for those worried about it, there is a happily ever after for everyone.