Living with a military father has been hard on Tim. His father is demanding, unyielding, and deeply hateful—going so far as to blame Tim for the death of Tim’s mother. It’s all been somehow tolerable because at least Tim’s struggles were going to lead the way out from under his father’s control by going away to West Point. But when Tim’s father discovers that his son is gay, all bets are off. Desperate for escape, Tim decides to run away from the Korean base where his father has been stationed. Only once he’s at the airport, Tim realizes that even the cheapest ticket off the peninsula will leave him severely strapped for cash. Nevertheless, the drive to get away, to be free, is overwhelming. Hopefully, a one-way trip to Bangkok will somehow be just the thing to get Tim living his life.
Argent can’t help but notice the hot, troubled guy at the airport. He knows that haunted look because he’s been there in whatever headspace has the guy booking the cheapest flight out of town with cash in hand. There’s just something about the guy that appeals to Argent. And since Argent himself is on a gap-year journey of self discovery following a suicide attempt, Argent figures why not indulge his curiosity. It turns out Tim has it pretty bad, running away from an emotionally abusive and manipulative father and needing a friend, needing help, needing something. It occurs to Argent that being there for Tim is very much something he can do. Food, shelter, friendship, and, of course, whisking Tim along all his adventures as Argent ostensibly researches one Southeast Asian country after another looking for inspiration for the erotic horror novel he plans to write. Before long, that camaraderie and companionship turns into something distinctly more intimate as Argent and Tim discover not only mutual attraction, but extremely compatible desires in the bedroom. For once in their young lives, Argent and Tim find something good.
Comfort Zone is a contemporary get-together, road-trip-esque travel adventure. It’s an eclectic mix of travelogue mixed with new, young love spiced with a lot of erotic discovery. Note both Tim and Argent are of age (Tim has just turned 18 and we know Argent is on a gap year, so not more than a year or so older). That said, it was somehow delightful to follow these two on their sexploration in the bedroom. Their physical intimacy runs the gamut from “voicing fantasies is hot until you’re face-to-face with the opportunity to act them out” to “this could either be a foot fetish or cock torture lite,” among many, many other discoveries and revelations. All I can say is it was spicy as hell and made me feel like sex is a way through which these characters learn how to build an intimate connection. (Well, that and holy hell how amazing it must be to be just figuring stuff out and have access to, like, an interent’s worth of information on all that jazz.)
Personally, I loved Argent. He just feels like such a relatable person. He seems pretty self-aware, comfortable with his sexual identity and with being goth (not to mention being a friendly goth, yay!). I really enjoyed how open Argent is about his wants and desires. That was something that felt like a key factor in helping Tim open up and explore his own sexuality. Argent is also very practical in the few times he discusses his suicide attempt and mentions of depression. Even with all that Argent has gone through, he seems to have this on-page effervescent joie de vivre and I felt like it was due at least in part to Argent being able to be the one to be there for Tim.
Tim is arguably the main character, but he feels more like a sort of straight man. At first, this can mostly be chalked up to the idea that Tim’s basically depending on the kindness of a literal stranger. That, plus his strict, military upbringing and the goals Tim had for himself until very recently all add up to someone who very much feels like he’s going through the motions. But one of the first bonding moment’s Tim has with Argent is when Tim snaps a photo of him and Argent sporting sarongs for the express purpose of sending the picture to Tim’s homophobic father to clearly express “you don’t control me any more.” Over the course of the book, it’s pretty clear Tim and Argent develop a very intimate relationship. However, the dynamic in the bedroom, coupled with Tim’s own apparent shyness/reluctance to embrace his identity and how reticent he I thought he was to acknowledge Argent as a romantic partner outside the bedroom, left me a bit adrift about Tim’s true feelings. Even when things are hot AF between them in the bedroom, there was often a little question of “is Tim just humoring the guy who’s bankrolling his life right now?” Maybe I am just being over sensitive because, by the end of the book, there really is no question these two are head over heels for each other.
The one small critique I have about the story is the overall structure. There’s a very clear, definitive opening where Tim escapes to the airport and meets Argent and is half convinced Argent is a serial murderer. Then there is this fantastic journey through multiple countries in Southeast Asia. This growing adventure is matched with growing in-jokes style references to the shenanigans they get into and the growing intimacy between the two. All that building is counterbalanced by the reality that life is not actually a vacation and when this open-ended trip finally ends, Tim and Argent will both have to think about next steps. My quibble stems from how the story just sort of happily peters out, but doesn’t really resolve the “what’s next” element beyond “they’re together,” or resolve Tim’s incomplete high school education question. It just felt like a very perfunctory ending.
Overall, if you love stories with adventure (both travel-related and sex-related), or about young adult characters, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. Our two main characters are delightfully distinct from each other in crucial ways that complement one another’s personality and life experiences. The story is a fun take on the proverbial Grand Tour back in the day where traveling abroad was seen as a way to turn a boy into a man (or something like that). If you enjoy multi-faceted characters, slow burn, self-discovery kinds of stories, then this is the book for you.