Title ~ Signs
Author ~ Anna Martin
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 20th March 2015
Genre ~ M/M Contemporary YA Romance
After spending most of his life in special schools, Caleb Stone now faces public high school in his senior year, a prospect that both excites him and threatens to overwhelm his social anxiety. As a deaf teenager, he’s closed himself off to the world. He speaks a shorthand with his parents and even finds it hard to use American Sign Language with people in his local deaf community. But Caleb finds comfort in his love of photography. Everything he can’t express in real life, he posts on his Tumblr.
Struggling to reconcile his resentment for his father's cruelty with the grief of losing a parent, Luc Le Bautillier scrolls through Tumblr searching for someone who might understand his goth look and effeminate nature. When Luc reblogs a photo by Caleb, sparking a conversation, they both find it easier to make friends online than in person.
Luc and Caleb confront their fears about the opinions of the outside world to meet in New York City. Despite Caleb’s increasing confidence, his parents worry he’s not ready for the trials ahead. But communication comes in many forms—when you learn the signs.
I approached this book with some trepidation. At first glance, it looked like another coming-out-in-high-school book with a gay-man-disease-of-the-month tacked on to add some angst and edginess. I can't tell you how happy I am to report that my fears were totally and absolutely unfounded. I have to stop making assumptions.
Yes, "signs" is a story of two 18-year-old boys, neither of whom has come out to family and friends yet, and one does have a disability. Luc is an intense, attractive, young gay man, of small stature, who is still going through a "Goth" phase, with his all-black clothing, eye makeup and studded leather. Caleb, on the other hand, is an immaculately groomed, beautiful young man - every mother's ideal son - except that he is also profoundly deaf, and has been since he was nine years old.
They're both very smart, well-read, and in the top academic echelon of their respective schools. They meet online in the comment section of Caleb's photography blog. It was the quality of his photographs, and the depth of the emotion and insight expressed in them, that inspired Luc to post his first message to Caleb.
But that's not what the story is really about. It's not about coming out, teen rebellion, even Caleb's hearing disability. It's about love. This remarkable author has given us a beautiful book about two boys who fall in love. Not in lust, not the crush of a typical teenager, but real, lifelong, committed love.
At the start, the prospects for a serious relationship between the two don’t look all that promising. There’s Caleb’s disability, the distance between them - he lives in Boston, Luc in New York - and the fact that neither boy has ever had a relationship before. In fact, they’re both virgins. Still, with the resourcefulness of smart teenagers and some force driving them, inexorably, toward each other, they do manage to get together. Being sensible young people, they refuse to waste the limited time they have in small talk and social niceties, so they just fall in love. Refreshingly, there’s little angst involved, almost no second-guessing – just two young men, with much to offer and share, falling in love.
Ms. Martin writes this love story exquisitely and with both passion and restraint. If you're looking for over-the-top lust and angst, this is not that book. If you're looking for a deep and beautiful exploration of two very exceptional young people discovering love together, you've found exactly what you're looking for. Oh yes, there's well-written sex too, but it's always in service of the story and their growing discovery of what it means to be together - to realize that the other person is "home", that you take turns holding, soothing, restoring the other, that each time you part, you experience an ache that doesn't diminish until you are back together once again.
I might even call it an old-fashioned love story, except that much of it takes place on Tumblr blogs, Skype calls and instant messages. Perhaps it's a new-fashioned love story, or a love story for a new age.
The sacrifices they make to be with each other, to support and help each other are amazing, right down to Luc arranging for the Cochlear Implant that Caleb wants, so badly, to restore his hearing. Luc goes to extraordinary efforts to make that happen, not because it makes any difference to him that his boyfriend cannot hear, but because he knows how much Caleb wants to be able to communicate directly, not through gestures and electronic devices. For Caleb, it's part of his humanity, and Luc wants Caleb to have everything he wants in life, and will do whatever he can (and more, if necessary) to provide it for him.
I was quite surprised to learn that Ms. Martin is a British national, living in England. So many British authors, writing gay fiction set in America, stumble over native expressions, idioms, even the names of places and things. I recently read one novel by a British author who repeatedly referred to a living room in Ohio as "the lounge", and slipped up on other similar “across-the-pond” issues. Not Ms. Martin. There was not a word, phrase, place-name, or description in all of "Signs" that made me even suspect, for a moment, that the author was not a native-born American. Brava, Ms. Martin, you've outdone yourself.
The pacing of the book was elegant, and watching these two young men interact in both Boston and New York was entirely believable, especially for someone who has spent a fair part of my life living in both places. She got not just the streets and landmarks right, but nailed the differences in atmosphere, tempo and energy levels as though she, too, had lived in both places at one time.
What Anna Martin does best however, is understatement. She contrasts the difference between the two boys' families without hitting the reader over the head with it. She’s an incredibly subtle writer, whose message is even more powerful for its subtlety. In fact, I vacillated back-and-forth between awarding "Signs" four or five stars. Yes, I adored the book and its engaging characters who moved me to tears more than once. But it just didn't seem "big enough" or "unique enough" to merit my highest accolade. And then I realized that what the book lacked in obvious impact, it more than compensated for in understated elegance, beauty and honest emotion. I mean, how many authors have the skill, inspiration and talent to put you in the mind of a deaf gay boy and leave you feeling you've experienced something both authentic and profoundly beautiful?
Few that I know of. For that, if nothing else, "Signs" is worthy of five stars, and for my highest and most heartfelt recommendation. Do yourself a big favor. Read it.