Author ~ Amy Jo Cousins
Publisher ~ Samhain Publishing
Published ~ 25th August 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
When it comes to love, there’s no such thing as smooth sailing.
Rafael Castro is so far out of his element he can’t even see it anymore. Carlisle College in Massachusetts is a long way from his Chicago home, even farther from his Dominican Republic roots.
The only thing keeping him attached to his last nerve is the prospect of seeing Denny Winslow again. The first time they met, Denny taught Rafi to fly across the water, rowing hard in a knife-like boat. Now, two years later, on the wings of a rowing scholarship, Rafi is attending Denny’s elite college.
Even before the excitement wears off, Rafi is struggling with classes and fending off rumors that Denny’s family, not Rafi’s talent, won him his spot. To quash the gossip, Rafi tries to steer clear of the man he wants. A plan that evaporates in the fire of renewed attraction.
But Carlisle’s academic pressure cooker has Rafi barely treading water. And when a family crisis hits, both Rafi and Denny must pull hard to keep their relationship from capsizing in rough waters.
Warning: Contains a surly Dominican-American guy determined to show no weakness, a golden boy who knows his soft spots, some seriously dirty bachata dancing, and an excellent excuse for voyeurism in the locker room.
Amy Jo Cousins is a brilliant writer. Her prose is so well-written, so descriptive, so elegant in word and rhythm that I have no hesitation, whatsoever, in calling it beautiful. It’s also evocative and realistic. Her dialogue is absolutely believable, with distinct voices that easily define the speaker, and often tells you more about them than her descriptions do. She is a genius at “show, don’t tell”.
Which is why I am feeling so conflicted as I write this review – the book itself is a marvel, the characters, perhaps not so much. At least for me.
As for the writing, here’s a great example of what Ms. Cousins does so brilliantly – elevating the simple act of rowing a racing shell into poetry, even sex:
“The rhythm of oars in his hands, the slide of his seat along the rails, the powerful thrust with his legs that began each stroke— all of it felt like sex. Took him out of his head and brought him deep into his body like sex did. And the pure pleasure of moving in perfect rhythm with another person, bending and breathing, pulling and sliding, pushed him higher on the cloud of endorphins as the shadows on the water lengthened and the noises of nearby traffic and birds in the trees faded away.”
Rowing is the centerpiece of “Level Hands”. In fact, the title is a term of art in competitive rowing. Rafi is a full-scholarship student at a prestigious New England college, given the full ride because of his talent at rowing. As a black and Latino kid in Chicago, it was rowing that set him apart, that defined him as more than a street kid. He’d worked in a program with Cash, the coach who pushed through Rafi’s scholarship, a program in which he’d met Denny – a rich, very white kid, a beautiful young man who stirred Rafi’s heart, but whom Rafi avoided like the plague – Denny is not yet 18, he’s jailbait. Yes, he knows that Denny seems to have a crush on him, and has for a long time. Rafi is only a year older, but he’s also “a century older in life experience”. Denny had run away from his family, who, oddly enough, refused to take it seriously when he told them he was gay. So he headed to Chicago and his cousin Cash, to get away from his parents. He desperately needed the sympathetic ear of his older and wiser cousin. After chasing after Rafi, from the day he met him, Rafi finally promised to kiss him the day he turned 18 – which is exactly what he did. Nothing more, but that kiss was the beginning of a passionate relationship against which Rafi will fight until he no longer can.
Both boys are on their way to the same school, both on the rowing team, thrown together for better or worse. The problem is, for Rafi (short for Rafael), it’s for worse.
Denny knows the school and many of the kids and coaches. He reaches out to Rafi, to give him a hand, a head-start, some social and academic connections that will help him get acclimated and hit the ground running.
Rafi shuts him out. The more Denny tries to help, the angrier Rafi becomes. I can’t remember the last time I got so angry at a main character in an ostensible “romance” for being such an ass. Talk about having a chip on your shoulder, Rafi has more chips than shoulder. He resents anyone who tries to help him in any way, as though a helping hand is an insult to his masculinity. All romance novels have obstacles and fatal flaws, but rarely do they have a character whose flaws are all self-made, gathered out of thin air, so self-defeating.
Rafi’s mother came to the U. S. to have her babies. Yes, Rafael was an “anchor baby”, his mother abandoning him and running back to the Dominican Republic once she got her five children situated in America, as citizens, with the older kids raising the younger ones. Rafi is the youngest, and he is raised, lovingly, by his four older sisters. Oddly enough, he still reveres his mother, despite the fact that she has all but abandoned her children and left the country.
Unfortunately, Ms. Cousins doesn’t give us any background that might explain where Rafi’s aversion to being helped came from. His family doted on him, he never wanted for food or shelter, yet he considers his race and heritage to be something to be ashamed of. He’s beautiful, men have been coming on to him, forever, he’s openly gay (and not hung up about it), but he is almost psychotic about people trying to help him, to the point that he’s at risk of failing school, being suspended from the team, and losing his scholarship.
Oddly enough, there are people around him who really love him, including Denny, whom he generally treats like dirt, despite the fact that he’s already fallen in love with him. Even Cash, who went out on a limb to have the alumni create the scholarship that brought him here, gets the short end of the stick.
It seems that he feels he doesn’t belong, and he intends to prove it, by getting himself kicked out – the only kid in his family ever to attend college.
There are ups and downs in the long middle section of the book, in which Rafi accepts a little bit of help (there’s a writing group that helps new students get up to speed), always followed by some more self-defeating nonsense.
I think that what bothered me most about Rafi is that, although he’s been an out-and-proud gay man since he was a young teenager, he doesn’t act like a gay man. And for this, I question Ms. Cousins. Why does Rafi have the same kind of masculinity issues that straight men seem to have in spades, but gay men rarely do? I have known tens of thousands of gay men, throughout my life, but I never knew one who (like so many straight guys), would rather drive for hours in a circle, lost, than ask someone for directions. It is as though asking for help is a demeaning personal failure. I do know straight men like this, but not a single gay one. That’s because gay men, in general, do not define their masculinity through such fragile and self-destructive constructs. Certainly, gay men have their share of self-defeating behavior, often as a result of homophobic experiences in the home, church, school and community, and those behaviors can be terribly self-defeating. The closet, itself, is terribly self-defeating. But an out gay man, who was never the object of homophobia, raised by four women who adore him, falling to pieces because someone wants to help him? Perhaps I missed something?
For whatever reason, I just couldn’t buy it, which left me wanting to kick his butt, instead of rooting for him to find himself. Eventually, he does, through a near-tragedy in his family, which causes him to reverse the whole direction of his life and study to become a nurse. A helping profession? Doesn’t seem like a rational choice for someone who just hates being helped, who runs around thinking everyone despises him because he was given a scholarship and has a dear friend at the college. I give Ms. Cousins kudos for the brief scene in which Rafi gets some help from a friend’s psychologist, who explains about scholarship stress, where athletes are constantly anxious, knowing that one false step and their entire college education will be pulled out from under them.
It’s a shame that I never warmed up to Rafi, because, although the book could have benefitted from some judicious cutting, it was so elegantly written that I was enjoying each and every word, even while I grew more and more annoyed at the main character.
Yes, there’s a happily-ever-after, or at least the promise of one, but by the time I got there, I was too baffled by Rafi to care.
I don’t mean to come off as a curmudgeon, because there is no doubt of the sheer writing talent of Ms. Cousins. Let’s put my issues down to the fact that I neither believed in, nor much liked, the main character, which happens sometimes. Perhaps I just prefer characters who meet obstacles with at least some degree of courage and persistence, even if they fail, and don’t particularly like characters who take out their personality flaws and fears on those who love them - because they love them.
If you’re looking for an exceedingly well-written Gay Romance with its share of angst and self-defeat, you will likely love “Level Hands” and I recommend you give it a shot. You really can’t go wrong, because of the quality of the writing. I do promise it will rivet you. No matter what my reservations were, I couldn’t put the book down.
Because she is such a wonderful writer, I downloaded and read other books by the talented Ms. Cousins, despite my personal dislike for Rafi in “Level Hands”. Please keep in mind that my misgivings are personal, not literary, and you may indeed fall in love with the gorgeous, athletic man who is the star of this book.