Story Rating: 4.5 stars
Audio Rating: 4 stars

Narrators: Graham Halstead and Javi Wilder
Length: 7 hours, 33 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks

Henry and Lark were friends, for a time; best friends. As the only two teenagers undergoing cancer treatments in their hospital at the time, they bonded over the difficult experience they were both enduring. They were there for each other through the chemo and the lonely nights when the pain hit hard, keeping up each other’s spirits on the bad days and laughing on the good ones. However, when Henry’s bone marrow treatment proved successful and he left the hospital, he left Lark behind.

Lark, too, beat his cancer and is now attending Roosevelt College on scholarship. The scholarship doesn’t cover everything and, to save money, Lark’s living at home with his mother and baby sister. He expected to have to work hard, which does. He expected to love his dance classes and hate his math classes, and he’s right about them both. What he hadn’t expected was to see Henry, healthy and happy and now captain of the football team, any more than Henry had expected to see Lark.

Henry’s father is proud of his son, but he’s told Henry not to tell anyone about his health issues. Those are in the past; they’re dead and gone and … he’s afraid that Henry will be held to a different standard if people knew. Which means Henry has to keep Lark from telling anyone about how they know one another. But secrets have a way of coming to light. What’s the more dangerous one? That he survived cancer, or that he’s falling in love with Lark Levitt?

XOXO is the first entry in the Roosevelt College series and features moments of obnoxious jocks, witty gay liberal arts students (most of whom developed personalities beyond their given tropes as the story went on), a bit of bullying, and under age drinking. It also has some really good friendships, as both Henry and Lark talk to schoolmates and friends about the problems they’re facing.

Lark is attending a prestigious school while being … well, poor. He has maybe two sets of clothes, has to work part time to help out his single mother, helps babysit his four-year-old sister, takes the bus because he can’t afford the gas to borrow his mom’s car — let alone get a car of his own — and is somewhat sensitive to the looks and comments thrown his way by the football team. He’s also shy, a people pleaser, anxious about everything, and constantly afraid he’s going to fail.

Henry’s father comes across — and is, to an extent — quite ableist. He doesn’t want his son to be judged for his illness, to face people either lifting him up to Captain because of his leukemia or keeping him from playing because of his leukemia, and he has no idea how to talk to his son. He wants Henry to be the best, to take advantage of his time in college, and to do well. And all that pressure is weighing on Henry’s shoulders, along with his fears of the cancer coming back, the team or his father finding out he’s gay, or the team finding out he has cancer.

Both young men are under a great deal of stress, and is it any wonder they turn to one another? Lark and Henry know what it’s like, that fear. The need to put on a smile for the family while hiding the pain so no one feels worse than they do; the fear of the future. Lark is dancing his heart out now, knowing he might not have years ahead of him. He’s living every moment to the fullest while being afraid, and Henry is hiding from his fear, all while it creeps up on him.

Their romance, like their friendship, feels organic and natural. Even the friendships — Henry with his roommate, Lark with his high school best friend and his new college dance friend — work for me. There’s no instant deep trust, just a slow growing comfort with one another. And the book is well set up for future pairings with the introduction of so many additional characters, all while never taking the focus off of Henry and Lark.

I was lucky enough to be able to listen the audiobook, which is narrated by two people, Graham Halstead and Javi Wilder. Both of the narrators infuse a great deal of personality into the characters, giving life to the story. The two voices also work well off of one another, and are well paired, as they complement the energy of one another without one narrator being more noticeable than the other. Both have a pleasant, warm, and easy delivery that makes listening to the book a relaxing experience. If you’re interested in trying this book, I highly recommend giving the audio version a try.