Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
I wanted to like this book so much. Historical (yes!), set in the Netherlands (yes, yes!) during the years prior to and during the second World War. I expected a romance that would develop during a time of danger, sacrifice, and privation. And I got – well, I’m not quite sure.
Stefan was a married man with 3 children, a caring wife, and a tremendous sense of pride responsibility for them. In the interwar period in Europe, even in countries that had not been allies of Germany during WWI, there was too much unemployment, too much poverty, and too much hopelessness. Stefan was a hard worker, and humiliated to find himself on the dole most of the time, punctuated by brief stints of working. In his daily walk about the city to find work, he ran into Adri, an out of work painter, who was also in line to receive benefits. Stefan had never been attracted to men in his life, but something about Adri just struck him, and the passion between the two of them was more than he’d ever had with his wife.
Adri always knew he was a homosexual, and had discovered those subtle ways to find other like minded men. And though homosexual activity was not illegal – as it was in most of the rest of the world – it was still frowned upon and something to be kept hidden. (The author was insistent upon repeating, frequently, that as long as the men involved were both over the age of 21 that sex between two men was legal. Although Stefan and Adri did get arrested once, I wan’t quite clear on why that happened, but maybe public indecency?) Adri was also drawn to Stefan from the beginning. The men became friends first, then lovers, and eventually Adri was even adopted by Stefan’s family as a sort of honorary uncle.
The majority of the book takes place before the war starts, and was primarily an ongoing monologue in Stefan’s mind of what it meant that he and Adri were lovers. He insisted to himself and Adri pretty much right up until the end of the book that he was not really a homosexual, and that effeminate men were worthy of ridicule and abuse. He kept trying to walk away from Adri – resulting in his wife getting pregnant with a fourth child – but always ended up coming back to him. He felt responsible to provide for his family, so he would not abandon them, even when he eventually realized that he loved Adri more than he loved his wife. When the Germans occupied the country, he was even more sure that he needed to stay with them and provide food, shelter, and safety, but he still carried on with his affair with Adri.
I was never really sure where this book was going, whether it reached any particular goal, or even how to classify it. It’s not a romance, not a memoir, certainly not an adventure. To be honest, the closest I can come is saying that it was Brokeback Mountain set in prewar Holland – but I never connected to these characters. To be honest, Stefan just irritated me – I wanted him to either accept that he was going to carry on an affair, or break up with his lover, or his wife (to be fair, I felt the same way about Ennis in Brokeback Mountain). His ongoing denial of who and what he was just didn’t touch me at all. In the end, it was just a long, meandering book with what seemed like endless angst without resolution from Stefan, that ended abruptly and unsatisfyingly.
I do not know this author, but I guess from the writing that English is not her first language. I would believe that she was Dutch, or at least from some part of Europe, as she had excellent grasp of the culture and the history of life in occupied Europe, as well as the hidden culture of gay men of the period.
Cover art by Posh Gosh is absolutely beautiful, and the park bench is an important symbol in the book and really the perfect image to use.
ebook, Revamp Edition
Published March 29th 2016 by Pride Publishing (first published May 1st 2012)