Celebrity chef Jake Hardy and fashion designer Eddie Kravets are the epitome of a power couple. Having both been transported into the upper echelons of celebrity by successful TV shows, their life seems to be picture perfect. Until tragedy strikes. Jake is distraught and inconsolable. His son, Connor, and his friend and neighbor, Baz, try their best to help. But it isn’t until a year later that Jake is capable of doing anything more than going through the motions. And it starts when he and Connor are cleaning out Eddie’s home office and find a paper with a list of towns. In addition to the two well-loved vacation spots is a third listed that simply reads “Beautiful.”
A quick search reveals that there is a place named Beautiful, albeit a small town more than three hours from Toronto by plane. Jake instinctively knows this must be Eddie’s hometown and he decides he needs to find out about this town his husband never mentioned and a life that he never talked about, and Baz agrees to accompany him. Beautiful may be just ten minutes from Saskatoon, but they peg it as a dying prairie town with most of its buildings boarded up from disuse. Jake, though, is determined to find out if there is any connection to Eddie still remaining. Over the course of several days, he and Baz meet and befriend a surprising number of locals. They have quaint customs and strong traditions, but still make a point of including the out-of-towners. The longer Jake stays, the more comfort he takes in the community’s, well, sense of community. He also uncovers the reasons why Eddie left home and never looked back. What’s more, Jake slowly realizes his husband’s tragedy wasn’t quite the accident it seemed at first.
Going to Beautiful is a contemporary slice-of-life-esque novel from author Anthony Bidulka. Though this is not a romance in the traditional sense, Jake’s marriage to Eddie is at the bedrock of the story. That said, there is a side thread about Jake’s best friend, Baz, finding love.
In the beginning, we get a glossed introduction to Jake’s life and his marriage to Eddie. In short, they were deliriously happy with their lot. Wildly successful careers, financially secure, proud fathers of a successful son. In the space of a few pages, it all felt like they had a picture perfect marriage. Then, disaster strikes. I loved the care Bidulka puts into the pivotal scenes around this development. The blurb mentions a tragedy, though I wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to be. Like Jake, I was in denial about what actually happens. The crucial scene rang false somehow, like I couldn’t just accept it. And when Jake eventually gets out to Beautiful, there’s both a nod to something maybe paranormal and to something straight out of a whodunit novel. In short, I loved the visceral feeling of living vicariously through Jake and all his hopes.
The book takes place largely in the town of Beautiful, Seskatchewan, Canada during the winter. Through our main characters, Jake and Baz, we get familiar with many of Beautiful’s residents. The community is tight knit, partly because nearly all the residents are descendants from Ukrainian immigrants, with the notable exception of Chung. The residents also actively work at maintaining their sense of community through group activities like gossiping at Ming’s cafe, going to church, sharing lunches, holding regular recreational activities, and picking causes for the community to take interest in. There is a delightful sense of intimacy, like each of the residents of Beautiful is more than a name like or an avatar. These characters add to the cozy feeling of Beautiful, and I loved seeing them welcome Jake and Baz. I thought this made the whole story feel more dimensional and really appreciated the sense that the supporting cast were whole characters in their own right, rather than mere props to expedite the plot.
And, of course, there was Jake reawakening to the world. He had gone to Beautiful without a clear purpose, just an idea that something there would help him come to terms with the horrible events of the past. It was comforting to read about Jake rediscovering hope in Beautiful, a place that outwardly seems desolate and truly did harbor some dark secrets, but was still a place of beauty and wonder. One of the things that Jake takes comfort in is a night apparition. I enjoyed the hint of something beyond the veil, even if Jake’s son points out a more pedestrian explanation for Jake’s visions. I also appreciated how the stereotype of small, rural towns being populated by bigots was eschewed here. In the end, the initial fear Jake had about being a gay man and that Baz had about being a transgender woman turned out to be nonissues.
Overall, I thought this story was beautifully executed. Bidulka crafted two strong main characters who have a friendship to last the ages and filled the pages with a (mostly) charming collection of supporting characters. I thoroughly enjoyed the tone of the book. Jake’s narration was wonderful, revealing his emotions in such relatable terms. I loved how self-aware he could be when interacting with the people of Beautiful and that he would take care when he realized he was approaching a topic of discussion with a different world view than his partner. I felt like that quality helped Jake fit in with the residents better than if he tried to steamroller the other person’s perspectives. If you enjoy character-driven stories about people coping with tragedy and finding hope and new beginnings, I think you’ll enjoy this book immensely.