I would rate this 4.5 stars.
Isaac, a new professor at a college that just had a mass shooting, moved from South Carolina to Ohio for a fresh start. He is surrounded by people with PTSD, an outsider among those who have not only known each other for years, but who have bonded over a painful event that he doesn’t know a lot about. Running from his own demons, Isaac has to forgive his own secret past, before he came be truly present for his future. Meeting his colleague John is a complication, a fresh start, and a powerful emotional journey he wasn’t expecting.
Be warned: besides some wonderfully explicit sex scenes, this also contains violence, suicide, and copious amounts of alcohol. The nonfraternization policy at the university creates a taboo nature that is fun at first, with the flirting and kissing. Right away this becomes serious as both men are dealing with trauma and have a lot to lose moving forward with a relationship. Them working on the literary magazine in the English department was a great plot point–I wish I could read it. The side characters like John’s best friend Tommy, a student John works with named Janelle, and a departmental employee named Cleo all add so much to this story, I can’t imagine it without them. I even got attached to Sonya, who is not shown in the best light. I loved how the book shows that grief and trauma affect people in a myriad of ways. Sometimes people don’t realize the impact they have on those around them. Sometimes, doing the right thing can hurt. Sometimes, what you think is best is not what’s best for everyone involved.
The point of view is Isaac’s, but the reader is not privy to everything since there are things he just doesn’t want to think about. Information is layered in throughout the book. By the time I realized it was all sliding slowly down a dark road, I was completely hooked. They both have mental health issues from trauma: whereas John seems to be dealing with his (therapy and medication), Isaac is ignoring his. I wondered if Isaac had given himself the job of rescuing John so he could avoid fixing his own mess. When Isaac’s ex Simon shows up, I felt genuinely frightened by this seemingly obsessed angry man’s actions, but then this plot point just fizzles out as Simon realizes this is a battle he can’t really win. Simon brings everything to a head, but I do wish it was a bit more nuanced since everything else here is so wonderfully well written. There is a time period where Isaac and John are separated during which I would have loved to see John work through his own issues. I don’t understand why there isn’t more shown about his Catholic guilt, or any guilt about his treatment of his wife and Simon. I feel like it would have strengthened the book since several months go by. While John is working hard to get better, Isaac seems like all his issues go away when Simon does.
In some ways this has a happy ending, yet trauma changes people forever. Even though it was hopeful, I was left with such a lingering sadness since we all know this is an ongoing societal issue with no end in sight. The author handled the gut-wrenching topics of mass shootings and mental health issues brilliantly. All I can say is that I cared about everyone–I cared what happens to each character–and isn’t that what we all want from a good book?
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