First person POV works for me so rarely that I tend to avoid most books written in that POV, except if it's written by Alexis Hall. Alexis Hall knows his characters (and his readers as I learned in Glitterland and Waiting For The Flood) so I find myself easily pulled in to the stories and characters in such emotional ways. For Real has, in fact, dual 1st person POV, but Toby and Laurie each have such a very different way of speaking and thinking that I never had to backtrack to figure out which one was "speaking." Toby's voice - young, exuberant, cheeky, passionate - was recognizably distinct from Laurie's - quiet, measured, calm - and vice versa, and I love both characters almost equally. I couldn't choose which one I identified with more because, frankly, I saw parts of myself (at one time of my life or another) in Toby's self-doubts and vulnerability and in Laurie's dissatisfaction with the state of his life and his self-preservation instincts. Part of the beauty in Alexis Hall's writing and characterization is that I could hear each character very clearly and their individual voices.
For Real is an erotic romance with kink, a kink that may not be for everybody. I haven't read a ton of BDSM erotic romance, though some have made it to my "In Case of Fire" shelf, but a lot have not. But hey, the kink here worked for me. Go figure. Maybe whether it works or not for me is a little like that exchange between the Pope and Michelangelo in that old Monty Python skit, "The Penultimate Supper." The Pope calls the artist in to berate him for using artistic license in "The Last Supper" because there are 28 disciples, 3 christ figures (one skinny and two fat to balance), a possible kangaroo, and maybe a trampoline act. The Pope yells that he wants a painting that has 12 disciples, one Christ, no kangaroo, no waiters, no friends, no cabaret, yelling "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like." Michelangelo counters all of the Pope's objections simply and enthusiastically selling his vision because "It works, mate!" So that's what I'll say. The kink in For Real just works, mate!
If I have to come up with a more thoughtful reason as to why it works for me, I think it's because the sex was more than just a series of titillating kinky sex scenes. It was merely the way Toby and Laurie give and receive pleasure. It moved their story forward, it was an integral part in how they maneuvered other aspects of their relationship, and was that needed link, a bridge connecting them in an elemental, personal way, one that allowed them to build their relationship emotionally as well as physically. It was never just for titillation, not a prop, and not the star of this show.
My guest, my shame, my fantasy princeling, was tucked at one end of the tub, legs drawn up to his chest, so all I could see were the pale humps of his knees and shoulders rising from the bubbles. He grinned at me. “I wouldn’t really make you read Winnie-the-Pooh.”
I sensed some kind of trap, but I had no idea what form it might take. “I’m glad to hear it.”
There was a brief pause. He trailed a finger idly through the foam, making ribbons. “I’d make you read something else.”
I was determined not to ask him what. That would have been entirely foolish.
“How about . . .” His eyes gleamed at me. “How about . . . ‘Thou shalt bind his bright eyes though he wrestle, Thou shalt chain his light limbs though he strive; In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle, In his hands all thy cruelties thrive.’”
I curled an arm over the edge of the bath and hid my face in the crook of my elbow. I couldn’t bear him to see me right then, stripped tenderly to the bone by the blade of his voice.
“‘In the daytime thy voice shall go through him, In his dreams he shall feel thee and ache; Thou shalt kindle by night and subdue him. Asleep and awake.’”
The sound I made, muffled though it was, echoed off the tiles until it seemed infinitely loud, infinitely helpless. I had no idea what he was reciting, but the words hooked into me like thorns.
And, yes, for his wishing and for his pleasure, I would have recited them. For my merciless, smiling prince” (29-30)
The heart of For Real is the romance: finding love, working through those new relationship conflicts and differences, negotiating the physical and emotional needs of the couple in the relationship so that both become comfortable and at ease with each other, learning to trust each other. Toby and Laurie have lots of issues to work through due to their age differences (Laurie is 37, Toby is 19) as well as disparate social and professional lives (Toby works in a diner as a cook and a university dropout, Laurie is doctor). Their differences are never more apparent than during this conversation about Toby's "five fathers."
“Good God,” Laurie mutters. I’m kind of worried about how he’s taking this, but I’ve started so I have to finish.
“Anyway, a bunch of them came forward afterwards, because it was all scandalous and cool, and about five of them stuck around on a sort of irregular rotation.”
“And you didn’t think to get a DNA test?” I don’t like the careful way Laurie says it.
“Dude, I didn’t care about whose spunk it was, I just wanted someone to stand up and say, ‘Me.’ When I was like nine or something, I was so sick of it I called everyone together, and I was like, ‘No more part-time dads. Choose.’” I need something to do with my hands, so I take a big gulp of wine I don’t want. And then I grin as I deliver the punch line. “So none of them stayed.” (212)
These roadblocks alone would be enough to bring a snap/crackle of tension and heart wrenching emotion into the mix, but they also have to work out a Dom/Sub-relationship-with-a-twist: Toby - much younger, lacking self-confidence, less physically imposing - is the dom, Laurie - older, taller, more experienced - is the sub. Of all these obstacles - the age difference, the social and professional differences, the basic personality differences - things that just about guarantee a very rocky road to get to "happy together", their sexual relationship is the one that fell more easily and quickly into a mutually satisfying place. Honestly, I spent more time being worried about whether Laurie was ever going to allow himself to love Toby and whether Toby would really allow Laurie to truly know him. Toby had a few surprises for Laurie over the course of the book and really catches Laurie off guard during a trip to Oxford.
“Jasper pushes away most of his crumble tart—a serious waste, if you ask me—and pulls his wineglass closer. He rests an elbow on the table, which you’re not supposed to do, and cups his chin in his hand as he looks at me with his pretty eyes and this faint, unreadable smile. “I’ve decided I adore you, Tobermory. Which poets do you favour?”
He makes it easy to forget there’s a whole world beyond him. “All sorts, really.”
“Don’t play hard to get. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Oh, all right. I like . . . the metaphysical poets, especially Donne and Marvell. And the Earl of Rochester. And François Villon. And Byron. And Gerard Manley Hopkins.” (214-215)
Even the secondary characters are so very well drawn. For instance, I adored Toby's grandfather and loved the relationship between these two that was at times funny and poignant but always so very positive and supportive. Toby's relationship with his grandfather is a testament about how someone can change, become a better person. Jasper and Sherry are very intriguing characters whom I hope will be revisited and explored in a future "Spires" book, especially Jasper. And, of course, Sam and Grace, Laurie's friends. Even Robert, Laurie's ex, felt more than merely a placeholder for the ex that broke Laurie's heart.
I lovedlovedloved the part when Laurie begins to admit to himself how important Toby is to his happiness, how essential, how Laurie's focus sharpens from impersonal to very personal materializing in the way he "sees" Toby much more clearly:
“I usually rationed my looking, not wanting to reveal too much of my foolishness, my fondness, but now I indulged. Revelled, even. He looked different in daylight, paler and brighter and sharper all at the same time, as though he was finally fully in focus. I could even see traces of the man he would become in the set of his jaw and the curve of his cheek. But for now, he was just Toby, my Toby—blue-sky eyes and fading acne, his generous smile, his slightly retroussé nose.” (178)
The dynamics between Laurie and Toby - the way they work through their issues - the passion the romance (and the Rochester references and Swinburne's "Dolores" snippets didn't hurt one little bit either), and all the angsty parts just worked together so well and very effectively in showing how these two need each other, complement each other. And it becomes "for real" for Laurie when he and Toby dance on the quad at Oxford.
“I’ve never called myself a gentleman.” He sounds stern, but then he smiles and kisses me lightly. “I like watching you dance.”
“Dance with me. It’s way more fun.” (223-224)
“I talk him through the basic steps and then guide him into them. At first he doesn’t trust me, doesn’t trust himself, won’t relax, or can’t, falls over my feet, his own feet, bits of perfectly flat ground, and he stands on my toes, like, a lot. (224)
I’m just starting to think I’ve made a terrible mistake when he . . .there isn’t another word for it . . . he surrenders, and we’re dancing. Slow, slow-quick-quick-slow, slow-quick-quick-slow, slow-quick-quick-slow. He even lets me throw in a couple of natural turns and a back lock without freezing or stumbling or mushing my feet into the dust.” (225)
“I told you, I can’t dance.”
I pull him back into hold. “Nuh-uh, you don’t dance. There’s a difference.”
“Not to me, there isn’t.”
I try to think of something that would be good for a quickstep and hum the opening of “Walking on Sunshine.”
Laurie turns into marble. “And certainly not to Katrina and the Waves.”
Apparently not. I peer up at him—the man I love and can’t call boyfriend. I think of him on his knees. How he touches me. How he looks at me. The sadness in him and the secret joy he gives only to me. All the ways he makes me powerful.
All the ways he doesn’t really know me.
Now I know what we should dance to. “‘Dear, when you smiled at me, I heard a melody . . .’”
And Laurie smiles, and we dance, and it’s a fucking disaster. Since I kind of have to concentrate a bit on singing, I can’t count at the same time, and so Laurie keeps getting lost, and it’s like our bodies have completely forgotten how to move together.
I’m just about to call the whole thing off, when—
“‘Zing! Went the strings of my heart.’”
Another voice joins mine. A way better voice, an effortless tenor belonging to someone who can actually sing. It’s Jasper, leaning in the archway that leads back to the cloisters, wineglass in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Laurie and I collide. Stare at him. He gives us an airy little carry on gesture, like this is totally normal.
So we put our arms around each other again. I lead and Laurie follows and Jasper sings, and there’s moonlight, and we dance and dance and dance until we fly and my heart is so zing, I can’t even.” (225-226)
*sniffle* I can't even either. Your really need to read For Real, um, for real. Now.