Rating: 4.25 stars
Fleeing an abusive relationship, Cole Alston returns home after the death of his estranged mother to settle her estate and sell off the house and all her possessions. Cole has been dreading such a day as both his parents were hoarders and the property more resembles a junk yard then home, the same as it was when he lived there growing up. As full of painful memories as it is, Cole feels he has no choice. He needs the money to relocate to Canada as his ex continues to stalk him but the task before him seems overwhelming and he doesn’t know where to begin.
Jeremy Collins owns the local antiques business in town. For years he has been trying to get Cole’s parents to sell some of the things they have accumulated on their farm to no avail. When Cole returns to town, Jeremy gets in touch with him, first to buy some of the things at the farm. Then Jeremy gets to know Cole and it is Cole’s vulnerability and pain that draws Jeremy to help him get rid of years of hoarding while helping him uncover his past. Slowly as the men clear away years of clutter and trash, they start to build a relationship of affection and trust, amazing given Cole’s background. But there is still so much in their path to happiness, including Cole’s anxiety, and his past in the form of his ex boyfriend. Will Cole be able to clear away his pain and emotional baggage before he can move forward to a new life.
Unearthing Cole tackles some very serious topics within its plot and does it very well. It is the first book by A. M. Arthur that I have read and I am really impressed by the way Arthur handles this difficult subject matter while maintaining our connection to a very wounded young man, Cole, and his potential love interest, Jeremy. Cole Alston has had a traumatic upbringing as both his parents were hoarders during a time where very little was known of what is now diagnosed as a mental illness. All Cole knew was that he had no parental support and his parents seemed to love their “things” more than himself. Arthur correctly imagines what the life of a child raised under those circumstances must have been like in heartbreaking detail as well as the consequences of their development into adulthood. Cole is insecure and low self esteem, wanting a home and someone to belong to above all else. This outlook and lack of stability has dire consequences when Cole picks one person to hook up with in college.
If you have ever, however fleetingly, seen parts of that Hoarders program on cable, then you have seen the pain and anger of the families of the hoarder almost burst from the screen, years of abuse pouring forth from children, partners, relatives and friends who have failed to stop the hoarder from accumulating things without regard to what is happening around them. Horrific on all accounts, including the puzzled, blank expressions of the hoarders themselves who can’t begin to fathom what they have done, including the filth they are living in. And Arthur gets it all right, from the descriptions of Cole’s house to the pain and anger he carries within him.
Added to that almost unimaginable background, Arthur extrapolates what that upbringing would have done to a child and gives us a Cole who ends up in an abusive relationship that takes him years to escape. Arthur makes it all seem so logical and realistic and perhaps that is the worst part of it all, the ease with which the abuser was able to take over Cole’s life. And throughout the story, the reader is there, inside Cole’s tormented mind as he struggles to reclaim himself but to do so he must face his past, strewn out before him across the outbuildings, yards, and crammed full house of his youth.
Jeremy Collins has his own unique layers, he is bisexual, a widower, and now lives in a small town not always accepting of alternate lifestyles. He is familiar with loss and pain, and is uniquely positioned to help Cole uncover his past, helping the real Cole to emerge along the way. I like him as well. There aren’t many other characters introduced here, the main story revolves around these two men, their past histories, and the situation before them. Again, I think that Arthur handles their delicate dance towards a relationship with care and authenticity with regard to all of the obstacles presented by Cole’s background.
And that brings me down to the issues I did have with the story. I felt that the ending and denouement was rushed, especially considering the buildup and emotional impact of seeing his abuser once more. That was frustrating and over far too quickly given their past, and the damage that had been inflicted. I did like that this ended in a HFN as opposed to a HEA which would have felt out of place given the characters and background. Had this story been lengthened just enough to flesh out the ending that the rest of the story deserved than the rating would have been much higher. As it remains, I still recommend this author and Unearthing Cole, it’s memorable, and the characters haunting in their pain. Don’t pass this one by.
Cover art by LC Chase is as haunting and memorable as the book.