Rating: 4.25 stars
Paul Sinclair met Mark Conwell in the science lab in high school. It was Paul’s first day in a new school. At lunch time,Paul seeks out his new acquaintance again only to have Mark calmly announce that he’s gay and that Paul might not want to sit there. Paul just grins,throws a french fry into his mouth and asks if he plays any instruments. And so begins a remarkable friendship that continues into their senior year in high school, the two of them inseparable inside school and out, they even make plans to attend the same college. Then Mark starts having pains in his side their senior year. While he tells Paul about them, he doesn’t go to the doctor until he collapses on the driveway during a pickup basketball game.
The prognosis? Advanced cancer. Shattered, Paul helps Mark deal with his terminal illness and finally admits to them both what he has known all along. He loves Mark and has for several years. It turns out that Mark feels the same way, but was afraid to say so. Neither boy was willing to risk losing their friendship before now. Mark’s condition deteriorates until he falls into a coma. Grief stricken, Paul puts his life on hold to visit with Mark each day, unable to deal with his impending death. Ronnie is a volunteer at the hospital who reads to the terminally ill. When Ronnie goes to read to Mark, he sees himself in Paul’s pain and immobility to move forward. Can both men find the strength to deal with their grief and loss? Or will the death of their loved ones freeze them forever in the past?
The Gift of Air is a wonderful story of firsts. The first love, the acceptance of one’s sexuality and coming out, and the first loss of a major love. L. T. Ville eases us into the beginnings of Paul and Mark’s relationship with the deftness of someone familiar with teenage boys and the high school social obstacles they have to navigate. I was immediately drawn to Mark’s vulnerability and courage in outing himself to Paul at lunch time. He acknowledges that he is both gay and social outcast to give Paul an “out” of their conversation and potential friendship. Then the scene turns heartbreaking as Paul realizes that Mark has changed shirts since he last saw him in lab that morning. Mark stoically tells Paul he had a run in with some jocks “who didn’t like him too much”. Nothing more is said, letting the change in shirt speak for itself about the encounter. Paul nods, says he thinks Mark is pretty cool, and changes the subject. Perfect and so typical of that age.
Paul is a wonderful character so easy to empathize with and relate t0. His family life is nice but not perfect. The last child in a large smart and athletic family, he is just a little off of his family’s norm, the different drummer as it were. In so many ways he is a typical teenage boy who becomes remarkable upon meeting Mark, his best friend and first love. I love watching the dynamics of their relationship change when Mark’s illness is diagnosed and they admit their love for each other. At times the pain makes them so mature and at other times in laughter and tears they are so very young. I think the author strikes the perfect balance here.
The final main character is Ronnie, a young man whose partner and love had died three years earlier. Ronnie has not moved on, continuing to volunteer at the hospital where his lover died as a way to stay close to him. When Ronnie sees Paul becoming as immobilized emotionally as he is, he decides to help Paul accept Mark’s death and go forward as Mark would have wanted him to. Both men start a fragile friendship over shared loss and have difficulty accepting that it might become more. Again, L.T. Ville realistically handles the new relationship between Paul and Ronnie, acknowledging the guilt each feels over moving on and the pressures that come from their families view of their new relationship. All families have their flaws as well as their strengths and both are represented here in The Gift of Air.
I know there are some that will criticize the author saying this story glosses over the horror and pain that comes with terminal illness, such as a quick mention that Mark has lost all his hair and is wheelchair bound at graduation without going into detail. But that is not the focus of this story in my opinion. It is how you deal with impending loss of such a magnitude, no matter your age, that is the subject here. Loss, grief and acceptance. As you might expect from a book with those themes, there are quite a few tears to be shed when reading this story. Don’t let the threat of those tears make you stay away from this book. For with the tears, also comes the joy of remembrance and the happiness you can find in someone new.Paul says at the beginning that Mark “taught him how to love without fear”. Goren Persson said “Do not be afraid that joy will make the pain worse; it is needed like the air we breathe.” With this wonderful gentle story L.T. Ville has given both Paul and the reader The Gift of Air.
Available from Amazon as a free read, and Lustyville Press.