From the moment they met at Gwynns Academy, Jack Gardner and Theo Beaumont had a connection—albeit one forged from instant and mutual dislike. When he first met Jack, Theo recognized the hallmarks of a poor boy and loathed not only that Jack did not immediately kowtow, but seemed to not care at all. Similarly, Jack easily identified the dismissive cruelty so common among the wealthy and he simply refused to waste valuable time engaging a spoiled rich kid like Theo. Every encounter was laced with tension and a hint of danger, of violence…and something more primal that neither boy wanted to acknowledge. By graduation, Jack was every inch the exemplar student with excellent grades and a sterling sports record. Meanwhile, Theo reigned from on high as one of the most popular and well-liked students.
After school, they would have been free of each other if not for a brutal locker room confrontation that shook the boys to their cores and an unrelated family disaster for Theo. Except that instead of parting ways forever, their paths cross in Cork, Ireland. Without the trappings of social class and boarding school, Theo and Jack explore all the delicious tension that dominated their schooldays for one delicious summer. Without really confronting the source of their deeply conflicted feelings, Jack and Theo fall into a comfortable pattern of partying, connecting, and fucking. As their relationship progresses, they begin unraveling and maybe even understanding what they want and who they are. The truth about being attracted to men seems easier for Theo to accept; but for Jack, it shakes him to his core. Ultimately, their relationship gets completely and irreparably broken, leaving both Jack and Theo forever changed and perhaps not for the better. Now, nineteen years, four children, and two broken marriages later, Theo and Jack’s paths cross one more time. Theo desperately wants to forget Jack; Jack desperately wants to reclaim what he lost. But overcoming years of hurt, separately built lives, and wives, kids, and expectations may prove impossible to overcome.
All the Way Happy is a contemporary story that is a deep exploration into the enemies-to-lovers and lovers-reunited tropes. The timeline is a delightfully messy reflection of how complicated the relationship between Theo and Jack is. I liked the concept of this narrative choice; it delivers a strong sense of expectation. I feel like this is most best reflected in some of present-day Theo’s barbed comments being followed by vignettes from the past that added some context. That said, the execution was a little distracting, but more on that later.
For readers who enjoy enemies to lovers stories, I cannot think of a better set up. Theo and Jack practically hate each other from the moment they lay eyes on each other. Theo sees Jack when they both happen to be in the same store buying uniforms prior to matriculating. Like a shark smelling blood, Theo immediately recognizes Jack as being poor and makes an off-hand comment about it expressly so he can put Jack into his lower-class box. When they first meet at the academy, the spark of outright dislike is palpable. And for years, they antagonize each other, all while not understanding that it’s not entirely jealousy or hatred, but also a taboo attraction that’s affecting them. Not even the brief time where Theo and Jack are a deliriously happy couple in Cork, Ireland is entirely free of this love-to-hate-you (or at least love-to-be-cruel to you) quality. And then after the break up, the animosity goes through the roof and is a huge hurdle for the grown-up Theo and Jack to either embrace or overcome.
Of course, since Jack and Theo do fall into a wonderfully close relationship the summer after they finish school, that sets the whole book up to play with the idea of lovers reunited. I was on tenterhooks waiting to see how these two would finally, finally make up. To me, it felt like every moment of present-day narrative was absolutely steeped in Jack’s regret over their break up (yeah, for nineteen years!) and Theo’s abhorrence over the fact that he himself wants to give Jack another try (and has for nineteen years!).
For me, Theo was a character I hated to love. He is consistently cruel, even when things are at their best with Jack in Ireland. Yes, he was apparently incredibly attractive. He wasn’t just a poor little rich kid whose parents didn’t love him enough, he suffered the humiliation of his father being arrested for embezzlement. He grows up to have a kid and makes damn sure his own son had the kind of loving, supportive parental figures that Theo never had himself. Yet he is always so darn mean—especially to Jack. It made for an interesting dynamic.
Jack, on the other hand, felt immediately likable. He is and has been miserable without Theo. Jack thought he could be happy marrying Margaret, his childhood best friend whose family gave Jack the kind of unconditional love his own mother couldn’t. I so wanted to believe there was just some huge misunderstanding that led to Jack and Theo breaking up. But if one thing was clear about Jack as a character, it’s that he truly had not been ready to admit he actually loved Theo until much later in life. And despite how earnestly he wishes to make amends with Theo, to try again at being a couple, I think the story does a good job explaining that Jack kind of gets exactly what he deserves.
AND YET, there was still a hard-earned happily ever after. Bonus points for address the fact that both Theo and Jack had been in heteronormative marriages and both of those ended amicably. Theo’s marriage was more like a business transaction that was mutually beneficial to both parties and ended after the agreed upon terms had been met. Jack’s was a lot more messy because he actually married his best friend after trying and struggling to love her.
As far as criticisms go, I have two. As noted above, I liked the idea of flip-flopping between present and past. What didn’t work for me was how it seemed like both timelines were hyper focused on very narrow spans of times—just a single event or even a single moment in time. This worked great to reinforce just how much Jack and Theo really did not like one another. For me, though, this same laser focus on happenings between the MCs with an extremely narrow scope really didn’t suit that gloriously brief time they had in Cork (and even briefer experience reading about it)…yet that is the basis for all the feelings present-day Theo and Jack have.
One other quibble is about some of Coltrane’s writing quirks. The most prevalent one to me is when the end of a thought or sentence is just left dangling. For example, after Jack learns that Theo’s dad had been arrested for white-collar crimes, “[Jack] thought about apologizing, about making some kind of amends, about finding commonality, maybe, with the boy he had always hated and always—“ That em-dash is doing some heavy lifting. To wit, the next utterance shifts to Theo’s perspective, so no closure there.
Overall, I thought this was a good read. If you like stories that follow characters for extended periods of time or splice two different timelines together, then I think you’ll really enjoy how Coltrane presents the story elements. Readers who like a lot of relationship angst, and especially the kind of angst you get from a long, hard road to lovers being reunited, will really enjoy the tension between Jack and Theo as they try to figure out if there is a future where they can be together again.