Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
Barney Teegarden knows what it’s like to be alone. He knows what it’s like to have a romantic heart, yet no love in his life to unleash the romance on. With the help of a friend, he acquires a lease in a seedy apartment building perched high on a hill in downtown San Diego. The Belladonna Arms is not only filled with the quirkiest cast of characters imaginable, it is also famous for sprinkling love dust on even the loneliest of the lovelorn.
At the Arms, Barney finds friendship, acceptance, and an adopted family that lightens his lonely life. Hell, he even finds a cat. But still true love eludes him.
When his drag queen landlord, Arthur, takes it into his head to rescue a homeless former tenant, he enlists Barney’s help. It is Barney who shows this lost soul how to trust again—and in return Barney discovers love for the first time in his life.
It’s funny how even the hardest battles can be fought and won with laughter, hugs, friends, plus a little faith in the goodness of others. All it takes to begin the healing is the simple act of coming back.
Two books ago I fell in love with a dilapidated apartment building on top a hill in San Diego, filled full of gay misfits looking for love. The Belladonna Arms, old neon sign sputtering to life each night, apparently is home to love pollen, the stuff just “rains down the walls” as one resident after another finds their soulmate in John Inman’s wonderful heartwarming Belladonna Arms stories. With one tragic exception.
In Coming Back, John Inman, heals that terrible wound and gets the Belladonna Arms love pollen working overtime again with a new arrival in Barney Teegarden, a friend and coworker of Pete (husband of Sylvia’s). Barney is looking for a new place to live and for someone to love and love him back. The latter being important. Most of the people Barney has loved haven’t returned the emotion and he’s ready for that to change. Pete swears that the Belladonna Arms can work magic but after seeing the rundown place Barney’s just not sure. Barney has just arrived at the multi-couple yard sale in front of the Belladonna Arms so he can meet Arthur, the owner and manager.
The next thing I knew, I was face-to-face with the gigantic drag queen in the platinum Veronica Lake wig. At the moment, he had four feather boas draped around his tree-trunk-sized neck, each gaudier than the next. He was waving them around, trying to attract a buyer, until Pete shoved me into his face, and said, “Arthur, I want you to meet Barney. Barney needs a place to live.”
Arthur slipped ham-sized hands into my armpits and lifted me a foot off the ground to stare directly into my eyes. I hung there like a Christmas ornament, wishing the fuck he would put me down. “You’re a cutie,” he said in a booming baritone that rolled through lips saturated with peach-tinted lip gloss. “And you’re a friend of Pete’s?”
“Yes, sir. I mean, ma’am. I mean, sir.” His lips spread wide in a grin. He gave me a little shake, as if he were trying to dislodge some fruit from my branches, then gently set me on the ground.
“Done,” he said.
“What’s done?” I asked.
“Your apartment. It’s ready for you to move into whenever you’re ready. There’s a vacancy right next to Pete and Sylvia.”
I blinked. “No shit?”
“I’m a tenant?”
“You’re a tenant.”
And just like that Barney has become a member of a wonderfully quixotic and dear group of people who make up the family that is the Belladonna Arms. It helps that Pete and Sylvia are next door neighbors and good friends already.
“Thank you, Arthur!” Pete cried. “Barney will be your best tenant ever.”
Arthur pinched Pete’s cheek and ruffled his hair. “I’m sure he will.” Then he turned to me. “Got a lover?”
“Uh… no.” Arthur pulled me into his massive, hairy, Opium-scented arms and squeezed me so hard I thought I felt an organ burst. “Well, don’t worry, honey. The building will take care of that.” “The building,” I grunted, trying to draw a breath. He eyed me with his one visible eyebrow cocked high. “That’s right. The building. Ever hear of love pollen?”
He blessed me with a secretive smile. “You will. It simply rains down from the walls in this place. And when that pollen touches you, you’re lost.”
I gazed over the feather boas draped across Arthur’s shoulders, tried not to sneeze because one of them was tickling my nose, and stared up at the homely old edifice standing in front of me. “Love pollen,” I whispered beneath my breath, wondering what the hell the guy was talking about. I gave myself a shake to dislodge any droplets of insanity that might have drifted down upon me like the ever-present glitter, and thought, Oookay, not my circus, not my monkeys. But since the Belladonna Arms was apparently my circus now, and since I would soon be one of the many monkeys inhabiting the joint, I found myself grinning in spite of myself. Because I suddenly knew—I just knew—this particular circus was going to fit me like a glove. Love pollen or no love pollen, for one of the first times in my life, I felt as if I’d come home. I blushed one last time when Pete planted a kiss on one of my cheeks and Arthur planted a kiss on my other. Both men loomed over and around me, patting and cooing, making me feel safe and loved and welcome. Embarrassed by the sudden surge of emotion welling up inside me, I plucked one of the boas from around Arthur’s neck, and draped it over my own. “How much?” I asked in a ragged voice. Arthur gave the boa a theatrical flourish, fluffing it beneath my chin and flipping it rakishly over my shoulder so the end trailed down over my ass. When he was satisfied I was properly adorned, he gave me another peck on the cheek. “For you, honey? Nothing. It’s a housewarming gift. Welcome home.”
The way John Inman writes that scene, I feel as though I had been swept up in Arthur’s embrace as well. And into the Belladonna Arms Barney goes. But you have to be a special sort of person to look past the dated exterior, the patches and painted over windows to see the magic, and Barney is that sort of person, knobby furred knees and all. Barney has an open mind and heart that’s a perfect match for the quirkiness and eccentrics that reside in the Belladonna Arms and for the events that occur there. And Arthur has a plan in mind and needs Barney’s help to make it work.
If John Inman is able to bring laughter to love, he doesn’t forget the pain that sometimes arrives as well. In Coming Back, Barney and Arthur try to deal with the horrific aftermath of a love affair gone lethally wrong in the previous book. In some of the most moving moments in the story, Arthur and Barney go to reclaim a human being and bring them back home. I cried buckets. I loved this whole aspect of the story. It was beautifully written, sensitive and real. It brought the Belladonna Arms stories into another level of authenticity and grittiness it did quite have before.
Of course, then it then switched course and we flow into some of the funniest passages John Inman has ever written, starting with:
“THUS BEGAN, according to Arthur, an orgy of butchery not seen since Vlad the Impaler started hosting block parties at his fixer-upper castle with the dungeon to die for back in Romania in the fifteenth century.”
No, no, we’re talking cutting hair! Really, people. And the author brings back that apartment jumping cat, only even that cat seems to be wanting some stability and a home. How I love this series..
Coming Back is a book to warm your heart, make you cry more than once and make you feel so good that you go to sleep smiling, thinking about the story and the characters and love pollen. This is a feel good novel and one I absolutely recommend as I do all the Belladonna Arms stories. I know there are more stories on the way, I can’t wait to see who the next newcomer is to get their dose of love pollen!
Cover art by Aaron Anderson is a little too dark and sepia toned for me. I get what he was going for, still too one color for a place as full of vibrant characters as the Belladonna Arms.