Rating: 4.5 stars
Liam Marshall and Alex Griffin were best friends for most of their lives, they were each other’s support and confidant through each milestone and every trauma life dealt them. For Liam especially because Alex was there for him when he was outed in high school and when his parents kicked him out for being gay. For Liam Marshall, his friend Alex was home, no matter that Alex was straight and Liam gay. When Alex turned 35 he received a diagnosis of colon cancer. Then their positions switched. Liam became his friend’s total support, moving in with him and caring for Alex until his death. But Alex is not through looking after his friend, even when dead. Alex had left specific instructions as to how and where he wanted Liam to bury his ashes and left him the money for Liam to do it.
That’s how Liam found himself on the Isle of Wight, on a train to Ryde to empty Alex’ ashes in the water off the pier at the edge of town, a place Alex had loved. But Liam can’t bring himself to honor Alex’ last request, because then he will be truly alone for the first time in his life. Despairing and in tears, Liam is comforted by a stranger, Sam Owen, who seems to know just what Liam needs.
Sam Owens is on the Isle of Wight visiting his grandmother, Rose, a formidable woman and his best friend growing up. When he spies Liam breaking down on the pier, he comes to Liam rescue and then determines to take care of him for the rest of his stay in Ryde. As the week progresses, Sam takes Liam around the island showing him all the places he grew up and the people who know Sam and his family so well. Soon friendship and even love are replacing the grief in Liam’s heart. But Liam lives in the US and Sam in London and Liam’s time to return is almost here. Can Liam and Sam believe enough in each other to make their future work?
The Isle of…Where?, along with The Sky Is Dead, has quickly cemented Sue Brown’s place in my “must have, must read” list of authors. Brown’s ability to pull a reader quickly and directly into her narrative is striking. The prologue from The Isle of Where? is a perfect example. This is a paragraph midway through the prologue:
Liam was by himself when Alex died, lying on the bed and stroking Alex’s dark-blond hair so that he wasn’t alone. He knew Alex wasn’t really there anymore. His spirit or soul had already gone, leaving behind a shriveled husk of a man. His throat raw, Liam tried hard not to show his grief in front of his best friend. What was left of Alex wasn’t going to slip away to the sound of Liam’s tears.
By now I am bawling like a baby, already heavily invested in Liam and Alex and feeling just as devastated by his death as Liam is. And I haven’t even begun Chapter 1! Liam’s grief is a tangible element here. We not only understand it but grieve with him. And when Liam is unable to let Alex’s ashes go into the water, we get that too. Liam’s grief is all encompassing,not only for the loss of Alex but for himself, now bereft of home, family, and best friend, as Alex was all those things rolled into one.
Sue Brown demonstrates a remarkable ability to get inside her characters minds and hearts. These people live, breath and hurt as realistically as you or I do. And its not just the main characters I am referring to. Its everyone you will meet on the island, from the many Owens that pop up everywhere to one of Sam’s ex boyfriend and his current partner, Nibs and Wig and everyone inbetween. But the heart of this story is Liam and Sam, two characters I came to love and understand over the course of their story. Liam is older than Sam, thirty-five to Sam’s twenty-seven and at first that distance seems not only chronological but emotional.
Liam has had a much tougher time of it than Sam (at least we think so at the beginning). Kicked out of his family because he was gay, Alex was Lian’s only support, in every way possible. Liam moved into Alex’s house and stayed close to Alex even though his marriage and divorce. Liam’s high school experience as being a gay teen consisted of a series of beatings and taunts that humiliated and hurt him. In fact, the only relationship Liam was ever successful at was his friendship with Alex, as Liam finds it hard to open up to others emotionally or to trust people.
Sam, on the other hand, comes from a loud and boisterous loving family, one who accepted his homosexuality with ease along with a box of condoms and a book on gay sex. Sam is open, giving, a nurturer by every definition of the word. But there is a darker more frail side to Sam that is only slowly revealed. Sam has a need to be loved and an almost overwhelming desire for a family of his own that made him vulnerable and naive in some respects. These two men totally complement each other but how much so is only revealed towards the end. Liam’s possesses hidden strengths that will surprise not only Sam but the reader as well. These are complex characters but the layering runs deep and it takes time to get underneath the surface to the core of each man. Time and patience.
The Isle of…Where? builds slowly to a relationship of love at first sight, an odd and seemingly contradictory idea. But it is not only true but it works as well. We meander around the island with Liam and Sam, listening in on their conversations, Sam’s errands, the coincidental meetings of the villagers Sam knows so well, and watching as Liam deals with his pain and grief. There is no drama, no excitement, just two men spending time together while learning about each other. Then as the friendship (and more builds) we meet the rest of the Owens clan, the speed of the romance picks up and declarations of love are made. The momentum is unstoppable, and at that point who would want it too?
Its in the second half of the book that Sam’s deep neediness really makes an appearance, but so does its basis in his personality. To anyone other than Liam it would be overpowering. But remember who was Liam’s foundation prior to Sam and it all becomes clear. Sue Brown never forgets her characters backstory and its affects on the person they are in the present. Some of the strands are subtle but they are there.
The author’s love and familiarity with the Isle of Wight shows in her settings and descriptions that enrich the story with the feel and flavor of a village that depends on tourists and the vacation trade to get by, a seasonal flow tempered by age and habit.
My only issue with the story starts once Liam returns home. The narrative feels rushed, especially considering the pace of the story prior to this section. I wish it had either been expanded or cut short before bringing us to a gratifying resolution. None of this, however, takes away from a truly heartwarming story that moves easily into the realm of the comfort read. This is not the book to read when you are craving excitement, danger or the adrenaline pumping narrative of hardened men, kinky sex (although there is a little of that here), and exotic places. This is the book to pick up when you have that cup of tea or coco, are wrapped snuggly in a beloved blanket and have the time to spend with characters and a place that will earn its way into your heart.
Toward the end of the book, Liam hears Alex in his head and Alex is saying:
“Breathe, Liam. You have Sam and now you have a family. I promised you a vacation with sun, sea, sandy beaches, and hot men. Didn’t I deliver?”
Oh,yes, Alex, you certainly did.
And so did Sue Brown. I loved this book and hope you will find its charms just as endearing.
Cover art by LC Chase is perfect for the men and the story within. Great job.
ebook, 250 pages
Published June 29th 2012 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1613727089 (ISBN13: 9781613727089)
settingEngland (United Kingdom)
Isle of Wight, England (United Kingdom)