Family was the most important thing to Wesley Traylor. As a young boy, he loved sharing shuffling and short walks with his great grandmother. Those walks were the only thing that seemed to placate her as she slipped deeper into dementia…and then there was nothing left. His father enjoyed hunting, though he spent more time watching deer than planning any kills. After a tragic work accident left Wesley’s father incapacitated, Wesley still found a way to share the majesty of the animal with him right up until his father died. But when his mother died years later, things were different. There was no longer any buffer between Wesley and his two hateful uncles. His uncles were men who started belittling and demeaning Wesley from an early age. They were men who eventually went on to physically abuse and torment Wesley. And when it became clear the uncles’ behavior had cost them any inheritance from their grandmother, mother, and sister, they began a campaign of terror against Wesley.
After decades of surviving, Wesley plans an elaborate escape to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His new smart house on Lake Michigan may not feel quite like home, but it does feel safe. Safety is paramount. So when an excruciating pain inexplicably explodes in his side, Wesley only grudgingly goes to the hospital where he discovers two things. First, he has the mother of all kidney stones. Second, Dr. Clark Matsuda is as annoyingly charming as he is annoyingly nosey. Wesley cannot risk piquing anyone’s interest, but no matter how prickly he is towards Clark, the man persists. Clark is determined to get to know Wesley. If it takes making not-strictly-necessary house calls, pushing Wesley to share his troubled past, revealing his own experience with hate…it’ll all be worth it to see Wesley smile. With the help of a special patient in the pediatrics ward and his own determination, Clark may have a chance at building something with Wesley.
The Beautiful Moment from author Kristoffer Gair is a contemporary, slow-burn romance with a significant dash of the paranormal. The contemporary elements come from the present-day setting and the two main characters. Wesley is pushing forty and has enough emotional baggage to last several lifetimes. He is painstakingly meticulous in how he lives his life, trying to avoid his abusive uncles. Early in the book, the reader gets a big dose of how far Wesley needs to go to escape to the Upper Peninsula. That, plus the handful of scenes from his childhood and explanations about his numerous scars, help explain why Wesley feels so compelled to close himself off from everyone, all for the sake of avoiding two men (well, now just one because one of the uncles died).
Clark is also approaching forty, but still conveys a sense of joie de vivre. His verbal interactions with others are charming and showed a quick wit. I am hard pressed to recall a character whose dialogue I enjoyed more; Clark often showed a delightful knack for wry humor. I think this quality translated well into how he approached Wesley about the scars Clark finds on Wesley during medical exams. Clark has easy comments at the ready in conversation, just like he is ready to ask the hard questions and not settle for the blow-off answers. Personally, I was firmly in Clark’s camp when it came to finding out how badly Wesley had been abused, but for sensitive readers, it might be triggering to read Clark not accepting the first, simple “no” when he asks Wesley about the abuse.
This book also touches on the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s what led to Wesley’s mother dying. But after that scene, we jump ahead a few years to the present and COVID is largely treated as done and over. That said, Clark himself was a victim to anti-Asian hate in the recent past. When Wesley finds out about this, it really jumpstarts how he thinks about his own choices to not get involved with anyone or anything. I think this element of the plot really helped build the case for Wesley and Clark as a couple. They both have trauma in their lives, so they can better relate to one another and know the understanding is genuine. I think it gave them some common ground to work from.
There is a pretty hefty paranormal element to the story and I loved how organically these moments were woven into the book. The first time was when Wesley’s great grandmother passed away and there’s a mention of the imprint of her shoes at Wesley’s bedside. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure this was meant to be anything, but given that Wesley himself seemed to know she had passed just when his mother came to break the news to him, it put benign paranormal activity on my radar. A similar bittersweet event happened when Wesley’s father died. Both of these figure into the story in the future as well, again with the same benevolence you’d expect from the people who used to love Wesley. The overall effect was tender and bolstered the image of Wesley as someone who is actually very emotionally sensitive with the people he is closest to, even beyond the veil.
My one gripe about the story was how Gair handled the use of Japanese in the text. Part of this is a professional gripe: in translation school, the general rule of thumb is to first consider your audience and then tailor your translation to that audience; the second rule of thumb is to be consistent. Gair doesn’t seem to follow these conventions as a few instances of single-word utterances in Japanese have an out-of-place gloss right there in the prose. That said, it was fun to think of Clark as being truly bilingual and that he will code switch. The two glossed Japanese utterances are kind of unconscious exclamations when he’s feeling surprised or overwhelmed. The utterances without glosses are more perfunctory things like a greeting on the phone.
Overall, I thought this was a delightful read. Wesley was a great flawed character. He is so defined by his trauma, but over the course of the book, he starts to face what his uncle has done to him. He slowly learns to open up, even if grudgingly. But one showdown with his uncle is enough to send him spiraling and it was exciting to read along and hope Clark would figure things out and get to Wesley in time. Clark was lively and full of banter, a bit impulsive, and a great foil to Wesley. If you are into books with grumpy/sunshine pairings, are interested in depictions of characters who have grappled with both intense abuse and fought to get free, if you like hot doctors or aloof reclusive types, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book.