Bio: B. is a freelance writer who holds a master’s degree in English in one hand and a beach bag with a book or two in it in the other. Two of her favorite beach reads have been Night Film by Marisha Pessl and The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. When not reading or working, B. enjoys singing karaoke and listening to the CDs she finds at antique stores.
Today’s post is presented by our honored guest poster B. If you read Paperback Adventures: The Time I went to the Amazon Store, then you would easily recognize B as the friend I visited the Amazon Store with. At the author’s request, I am cautioning readers this is a review for an adult M/M romance novel. If this genre is not your thing, or if under age, please do not read this article. There is brief mention of sexual content. Thank you and have a lovely day!
“My (So Far) Favorite Novel of 2017 (and yes, it’s not perfect): Interborough by Santino Hassell”
Written by: B.
Interborough, the fourth title in Santino Hassell’s series, Five Boroughs, was a book I could resist no more than I can resist turning up a favorite song on the radio even though I already own the CD (yep, I’m old school that way). Below, you’ll find out just why Interborough, the story of interracial and bi(-)orientation couple Raymond Rodriguez and David Butler, enthralled the bookish attics of my heart and mind, and where in the book, in my opinion, Hassell’s tale could’ve been improved.
Part of what made Interborough a thrilling read was that it employed a couple of my favorite romance novel tropes. In romance novels, it’s not uncommon to find tropes such as friends-to-lovers or enemies-to-lovers. Two of my personal high-ranking tropes are established couple and found family. Hassell’s book has the former in his novel’s main couple. At the beginning of Interborough, Raymond, bisexual and Puerto Rican, and David, gay and Caucasian, have been in a relationship since getting together in a friends-to-lovers fashion in Sunset Park, book 2 of the Five Boroughs series (of which, as of now, there are five books, the first, third, and fifth novels each focusing on a different same-sex male couple). As in life, with my reading selections, I’m more interested in how couples stay together (or don’t) rather than how they meet (this might explain why romantic comedies don’t usually appeal to me; I’d rather watch 10 Things I’d Like to Work Through With You). Throughout Interborough, Hassell rakes David and Ray over the relationship coals. There’s the tension caused by Ray working two long-hours jobs as well as attending community college. David too faces career pressure as he’s desperately trying to make tenure as a high school Earth Science teacher. Not only do these two need to conquer external (non-literal) obstructions, there’s also the internal intertwined with the external struggle for how public Raymond wishes to be about being bisexual and in a relationship with another man and how this affects David’s equilibrium within the relationship as David is openly gay. David plight in feeling rejected in his own relationship (as well as feeling disregarded and being seen as ludicrous when Ray doesn’t take his concerns about their relationship seriously enough) is so poignantly rendered in one comment, which occurs during an argument Ray and David while on a cruise that they’ve taken with their friends, that I almost teared up. Below the comment (from Raymond’s point-of-view, the Caleb who is mentioned is David’s ex):
‘ No, I’m not.’ David dropped his hands. ‘You always do this! You make me feel bad for feeling things. God. It’s like you and Caleb have conditioned me to think my feelings and thoughts are always fucking invalid! I’m sick of it.’ He swung an arm out to indicate the ocean. ‘No on is even out here and you still don’t want to touch me!’”
David’s feelings of inadequacy, anger, sorrow, and love all mixed together I found to not only be relatable but applicable to other relationships. While David’s anguish in the scene above stems from sexual orientation, his words could easily be found in a conversation between a couple struggling with interracial conflict (which Hassell addresses a bit in Sunset Park), inter-ethnicity conflict, inter-religious or inter-class conflict. To me, this is the high mark of a writer who is able to adroitly understand his characters while also allowing them to have resonance outside of their story.
For as much angst-country as Ray and David traverse, Hassell still successfully demonstrates that these two people enjoy spending time with each other. They may be on precarious territory, but Raymond and David also like to have fun, such as when they go on a walking historical tour while on one of the cruise’s island stops. Furthermore, David and Raymond still find each other throughout the story erotically appealing. Their sex scenes, which Hassell does not overload the story with, are portrayed as ardent and sweet as well as intense as well as adventurous. And Hassell takes them into soul-mate territory (which I must admit, I am a sappy fan of) when during the Epilogue (from David’s p.o.v.), which takes place at Raymond’s brother’s wedding, Ray and David profess the following to each other, after they’ve decided to own and live in a house together (they’ve previously been living in an apartment):
“Raymond’s eyes flicked to his brother [Michael] and Nunzio [his brother’s husband]. ‘I always knew those two would be happy, you know? They’d have each other. I didn’t think I’d ever have that kind of connection with someone. Then you came along.’
‘With my stage-five-clinger ways?’
He laughed. ‘Yeah. And the fact that you expected so damn much of me, which I always loved about you. No one ever had before, even when they wanted to. People pushed me, and encouraged me, but you’re the only person who really . . . believed in me.’
‘And you believed in us,’ I said. ‘Even when I was despairing and afraid, you kept fighting.’”
So, here we are halfway through the post, and you’re probably wondering, ‘ok, so what’s the problem?’ That would be one quibble and one jarring concern related to a secondary character. The quibble concerns David’s job. I loved that David’s job was being an Earth Science teacher. Not only is Earth Science my favorite of the sciences, but it was a refreshing choice of study. Unfortunately, I never really got the sense of why David likes Earth Science, why he was drawn to this particular area of study. Instead of illuminating more of David’s character, his field just seemed kind of random. But perhaps, this is explained more in the first book, Sutphin Boulevard, in which David is introduced as a hook-up and co-worker of Ray’s brother, Michael (and while I have read Sunset Park, I can’t recall any discussion of why David teaches Earth Science). Now onto the jarring concern.
Interspersed throughout Interborough is David and Ray’s rich circle of friends. As I mentioned at the beginning, the found family trope is one of my favorite tropes as it allows the writer, especially in a romance novel, to develop in detail the non-sexual and/or non-erotic components of his or her characters as well as demonstrate how a friendship between a couple vs. a non-couple is different but equally beneficial. In Interborough, I found Hassell succeeded at depicting friendships through Ray’s friendship with his childhood friend Chris (a man), the burgeoning friendship between Chris and David, and Ray’s friendship with Tonya. And what worked was that Chris and Tonya stood out as complex secondary characters. The author showed us that Chris could be amiable and charming, but he could also be blunt in a way that made people think as well as quietly loyal, such as when he begins to film an incident on the plane to the cruise ship in which a flight attendant wants them all to disembark after Ray and David are harassed. Tonya too was complex in that she was shown to not just be a tough military woman, but also a woman who cares about her friends and can give practical reasoned advice, like she gives to Ray after he and David have the worst fight of their relationship which causes Ray to leave their apartment for a few days.
And then there’s Stephanie. Stephanie, like Chris and Tonya, is one of Ray’s oldest friends. Stephanie and Ray were also sexually involved, though never officially dating. She’s described by David to a friend of his, Charles, as the following:
“’She’s kind of amazing. Funny and sweet and super smart. I’ve gone to trivia with her a few times, and she knows so much random shit about everything.’”
Except we never actually see any of that (nor do we see her and David shopping for shoes, which Ray implies they do frequently). We read one line of dialog of hers that’s semi-funny, but that’s all. If Stephanie was only underdeveloped that would be an issue, but it would be easy to overlook—Interborough isn’t her story. But twice, Hassell (frustratingly) brings Stephanie into Placate-Land.
The first time occurs during a night of dancing while the group is on their cruise. On his way to what will be the most devastating moment in his relationship with Ray, David watches as Ray dances an erotically-infused salsa with Stephanie. David woefully muses if Ray would ever ask him to dance like that in public, but not before he comments about his lack of jealousy towards Stephanie even though she possesses a “skin-melting hotness”. The second time occurs at Michael’s wedding. David’s friend Charles, who’s not heterosexual, spots Stephanie and asks who she is. After David identifies her, Charles declares:
“‘Well, she’s gorgeous. If I was straight…’”
To which David replies: “‘Right?’”
Both scenes smack of placation. Putting aside David’s lack of jealousy towards a woman (a discussion for a much longer and different post), his description of Stephanie in the former scene and his brief conversation with Charles in the latter end up falling into the dialog of: ‘Don’t worry, ladies! The gay man may not want to sleep with you, but he’ll still acknowledge you’re sexually desirable!’ This placation is insulting because it implies that women, particularly women who are attracted to men, can’t accept a man who is a fixed (as opposed to fluid) homosexual or primarily attracted to men without reassurance that there is nothing wrong with them, instead of just accepting that consenting adults find erotically and sexually appealing who they find erotically and sexually appealing, fin. A man not finding a woman attractive does not strip her of her femininity nor does it make the man a misogynist. I don’t, and many women don’t, need to be coddled in this fashion (or any fashion really). What I, and many women, I’m sure, would like to stop seeing is how we rank in terms of sex appeal. Because Hassell’s placation dialog winds up reducing us and making the main focus and idea of ourselves to our physical appearance and from there our chances of being taken to bed. Instead of focusing on Stephanie’s (potential) wit or her intellectual skills (why does she know so much trivia?), Hassell chooses to comment on Stephanie’s, a minor character, erotic presence twice, engaging in a conversation that we should be progressing beyond.
That all being said, Interborough, so far, remains my favorite novel of 2017. Ray and David are strong main characters with flaws and sweet points. Their dialog (along with most of the other characters’) is fresh and moving. I always wanted to know what happened next in their relationship. I cared about these characters and thought about them after finishing the last page. I would happily read a whole series about them and wish I could go back and read Interborough again for the first time.
Favorite quote: “He was my first love. My only love.”