Thursday, April 18, 2013

Big Boy by Ruthie Knox

Why I read it: I had this pre-ordered from Books on Board but the download failed (and this was just around the time that the news hit that BoB was bust.  The author kindly sent me a copy when she saw me lamenting on Twitter that the download link was broken and no-one from customer service was responding.

What it's about: (from Goodreads)  He'll be any man she wants--except himself.

A Strangers on a Train story

Meet me at the train museum after dark. Dress for 1957.

When Mandy joins an online dating service, she keeps her expectations low. All she wants is a distraction from the drudgery of single parenthood and full-time work. But the invitation she receives from a handsome man who won’t share his real name promises an adventure—and a chance to pretend she’s someone else for a few hours.

She doesn’t want romance to complicate her life, but Mandy’s monthly role-playing dates with her stranger on a train—each to a different time period—become the erotic escape she desperately needs. And a soul connection she never expected.

Yet when she tries to draw her lover out of the shadows, Mandy has a fight on her hands…to convince him there’s a place for their fantasy love in the light of day.

What worked for me (and what didn't): Sometimes a book can be unexpectedly moving.  Mostly, I don't expect a novella to pack an emotional punch.  I do think it is a special skill to write short and to have fully realised characters when there's a limited word count.  I'd read the blurb so I was expecting a sexy short and I did get that.  What I wasn't expecting was that it would have undertones of melancholy and an emotional resonance to it.

Mandy's sister, brother-in-law and niece were killed in a car accident, leaving her the guardian of then 9 day old baby Josh.  Grief, love, the overwhelm of instant motherhood (and the lack of sleep that goes with parenting a young child) are painted in spare words which pack a punch. 
Josh finds this amusing, and he runs back over and spazz-tackles me, knocking me down on my back. He pulls up my shirt and puts his cheek on my belly. My stomach is his version of a security blanket, which can be embarrassing when we go out in public.
I stroke his silky black hair. He looks like Paige’s husband, and I find that comforting. It would be harder if he looked like my sister.
Coping with a new job and a new baby (especially in such unexpected and sad circumstances)
meant that Mandy didn't have time for a relationship.  Convinced by her friend to sign up to an online dating agency, she comes across a series of profiles clearly set up by the same man, in period costume and persona.  Something about being someone else for a little while attracts Mandy and she arranged to meet her mystery man.
I sent him an email. It had to go through the dating service, so he only knew me as Mandy, and I only knew him as Chet Baker. Likes: Porkpie hats, West Coast jazz, heroin. Dislikes: Rigamarole.
He told me he had rules. He didn’t want to know my last name or what I did for a living, and he didn’t want to tell me anything about himself, either. It was the very opposite of what the dating service encouraged us to do.
I accepted his boundaries and tried to engage him in chitchat about music, movies, books. He asked me out. Sort of.
He proposed to meet me at the gate of the National Railroad Museum at eight o’clock on a Tuesday night. I had to wear something appropriate to 1957.
It is clear that the anticipation of their monthly dates is a ray of sunshine in Mandy's life and she takes great delight in procuring her costumes.  She takes delight that he does the same.  Though I was perhaps expecting otherwise, they didn't jump into bed straight away.  They meet once a month but it was a few dates before they kissed and more again before they had sex.    They talk.  They are in character and Mandy tells him stories of her life but adapted slightly for the era they are inhabiting that night.  The emotional resonance is real even if the names have been changed.

She is smitten by this man but questions whether she knows him at all or if it's all just a made up story.  When she meets him at a work function, she finally finds out his real name and they have a conversation about who they really are.   Their conversational ease is the same, filled with humour and deeper truths.
He shrugs. “I always liked it. Seemed like a good fit, and I did an internship at Heritage Hill one semester in college and couldn’t resist the allure of the low pay and complete lack of respect that comes with museum work.”
“I was the same way. As soon as I found out about the grad-school-debt to starting-salary ratio, I was like, Where do I sign up?
Mandy wonders why they couldn't have a "real" relationship now; she's coping better with work and with Josh, she could squeeze in more than one night a month, for him.  

The rest of the story serves to demonstrate that other people live lives of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) desperation and despair and Mandy was less alone in her overwhelm than she had perhaps thought.  

What else? It's the kind of story that resonates after one turns the final page.  I was curious about where this couple would go next, how they would fit "them" into their individual spaces.  I confess I would have liked a little more on this at the end and not just out of greed either.  I was still feeling a little melancholy when I finished and perhaps this was authorial intention, but a little more of their relationship success at the end would have served me well.

At just on 60 pages, this novella is surprising and moving, sexy and funny, while at the same time dark and sad.  It is a definite romance so do not despair.  Like many others who have reviewed this one in my little corner of Romancelandia, I suspect a re-read is on the cards.

Grade: A-


Angiegirl said...

Surprising and moving is exactly how it felt to me. I was enthralled.

Kaetrin said...

It was special wasn't it? :)

Marg said...

I think this was one of the best romance novellas I have read. It was emotionally deep, very sexy and very satisfying!

Kaetrin said...

@Marg - yes, it's one of the best I've read too.