Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Ben Lethbridge spent most of his life taking care of his little sister when his parents were killed. It was a job no eighteen year old should have to shoulder, especially a diabetic one. But Ben did it and with love and patience, becoming the parent, guardian and security for his 6 year old sister. And when his sister grew up, the lessening of those duties made Ben a party boy, determined to make up for those years he missed out on while she was growing up. But the excess to which Ben partied and drank was too much for his fragile body to handle and now he is paying for it by living on a home dialysis regimen and waiting for a kidney transplant that never seems to come.
The highlight of Ben’s day is his delivery boy coming to his house to drop off a package. Ollie is a young, purple haired skateboarder whose bright personality and gorgeous body is the stuff of Ben’s dreams, day and night. But not only is Ben not sure of Ollie’s sexuality, Ben feels unlovable and downright unsexy due to the tubes running out of his abdomen, his swollen physique, and strict daily regimen he is locked into. So, other than a casual greeting with Ollie, all Ben does is look. And dream.
But one day a package Ollie is delivering breaks and Ben’s gay porn CDs fall out. In the ensuing mess, it comes out that Ollie is as gay as Ben had hoped. And Ollie’s kinks mesh with Ben’s status. As with everything else in Ben’s life, nothing is ever easy and that goes for a relationship between Ollie and Ben. Can both men overcome the obstacles between them or will Ben let this chance at happiness slip away.
Handle With Care has so many terrific unexpected elements to it not normally found in m/m romance novels or any romance novel actually. Myles gives us two main characters whose physical traits, and past histories make them unusual to say the least. Her first MC is a young man responsible for his own (mostly) physical decline. Ben Lethbridge was a 18 year old diabetic when his parents death made him responsible for his young sister as her only guardian. Myles makes us understand why Ben would party to excess when he was finally able to let go, while remaining factual as to the physical ramifications that such an abuse of drugs and alcohol would have on a diabetic. Now in his thirties, Ben is living with the consequences and they aren’t pretty. Josephine Myles gives us graphic descriptions of exactly how Ben goes through his daily regimen that is barely keeping him alive. This happens early on:
Three hours after Zoe left I hooked up the catheter tube in my belly to an empty bag and started to drain out all the waste dialysis fluid. I’d infused a dialysate bag not long before she’d turned up, so I had to wait for it to diffuse before opening the parcel. It might sound silly, but I had problems getting it up with all the dialysate fluid inside me. I’d look down and see my bloated abdomen and that bloody tube sticking out of me, and any trace of arousal just evaporated. I’d just start thinking about how the fluid was sloshing around inside my peritoneal cavity, getting more and more toxic as it leached all the waste products out of my blood.
In some ways, I’d have preferred to stay on the haemodialysis, which was only three hospital visits a week, but what with the diabetes, it didn’t work so well for me. I felt terrible most of the time and kept having crashes. Peritoneal dialysis was better at keeping my blood sugar level, even if it could be a hassle having to infuse and drain four bags a day.
As the fluid drained out, taking all those toxins with it, I ripped open the cardboard wrapper and pulled out the latest acquisition to my library. I was getting quite a collection. Like I said, I had to get the variety somehow, didn’t I?
Vivid, matter of fact, and perhaps more than the reader would want to know. And this is perhaps the mildest of the descriptions of the reality that Ben faces daily as a man who needs a kidney transplant and lives a fragile life according to a medical regimen. Ben has a disease that many live with and more than a few mishandle it as badly as Ben does early on. He loves his sister, and has been her main support and companion for her entire life. Ben is intelligent and holds down a good job, albeit at home due to his physical condition. He seems like an ok guy. And while there is much to admire about Ben, there is also elements of his personality that made it hard for me to like him. Is he human? Absolutely but does that translate automatically into a character we can care about and relate to? I don’t think so. For a character to have a disability or a disease is not enough to make that person someone the reader would automatically connect with. They need a good or great core at the center to go along with whatever else is happening to them. Ben, unfortunately, is also a bit of a curmudgeon. He makes assumptions about everyone and everything, not always nice ones. He has a next door neighbor who fills her garden with gnomes and other statuary. Here is his thoughts on poor Mrs. Felpersham:
Ollie to be at the door on Monday morning. What I was expecting was Mrs. Felpersham, the old biddy who lives in the gnome-infested house next door and who insists on calling round once a week to ask how I’m doing. I wouldn’t mind if it were purely an innocent enquiry, but I swear she’s just looking for a chance to snoop around my flat and pass judgment.
In fact Ben rarely has a nice thought about any one with the exception of his sister. And that gets old fast. I kept telling myself that this was supposed to be reflective of Ben’s mental and physical state at the time. And while it may have been realistic, it didn’t make him any more accessible as a person.
And it’s not just Ben. His sister, Zoe, is as understandable and unlikable as he is. She is young and protective of her brother/guardian. In fact, due to Ben’s illness they have switched places with Zoe acting almost as Ben’s caregiver and sole companion. She cooks all his meals for him due to his dietary restrictions and acts as his only friend outside his house. Not exactly a healthy relationship but that never comes up. She wants Ben to date, she wants to control who he dates. She throws fits of anger and jealously that seem real given her personality and circumstances but do I like her? Again, no.
And then there’s poor Ollie, our young purple haired skateboarder who dreams of opening his own cafe. I actually liked Ollie the best but Myles has burdened poor Ollie with a back history as a doormate/domestic servant with benefits with an older man who took advantage of him. The history Myles created for Ollie seems authentic and potentially realistic. So does his behavior with Ben and that makes Ben’s actions later more than a little repugnant and hurtful. Ollie is young, ebullient and in financial straights. I understood and liked this character. Just not his choice of lovers, and that includes Ben.
I think my biggest issues here have to do not only with the characterizations but the relationship. These all felt like very real people. So were the events that happened to them, from the accident that killed Ben’s parents to the transplant that Ben undergoes to save his life. The location, the events, everything is beautifully layered and fleshed out but no matter how hard I tried (and truly I did try), I just never got the attraction between Ben and Ollie. That pull or magic that needs to be created on the page in order for the reader to buy into their love for each other seems utterly missing.
Josephine Myles is a terrific writer. She thinks outside the norm when it comes to her characters and plots. Sometimes they work and other times while we see the potential of the story, the actuality comes up short as it did here. I liked the chances the author took with her characters in this story. I like seeing people with disabilities or more common diseases being represented in romances as they deserve to be. I only wish I had liked these a little more. If you love Josephine Myles, then maybe you will feel differently than I do about Ben, Zoe and Ollie. But if you are new to this author, skip this one and proceed to her many other books. There is sure to be one you will love waiting for you on her shelf.
Cover art by Kanaxa is both lovely and touching. Great job.