Rating: 5 stars out of 5
February 1980. Philadelphia, PA. Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester are enrolled at Temple University and have started to adjust to life as college students and life away from home. But further challenges have to be faced by these two young men. In addition to being out and gay, Everett Forester is still learning how to live with his disability. Going to class, navigating around campus in a pre Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) world presents Everett with some huge hurdles to overcome, including those of intimacy with his lover, Reid.
But Everett’s demanding mother has other plans for her son and they don’t include Everett graduating from Temple University. After much pressure from his mother, Everett gives in and transfers to the University of Pennsylvania. Now Everett and Reid must juggle school work and the daily struggle to be together as they attend different schools and a variety of commitments. The solution? An apartment in the city that is perfect for them both and a landlady more friend than landlord.
As the 1980’s progress, Reid and Everett face many events and issues that will test their love and commitment to each other. The rise of a strange disease that seems to target gay men, student protests, and the further exploration of their sexuality. But it’s a mysterious Polaroid of Everett taken shortly before they met that may bring the most danger to Everett and Reid’s life together. Who took the provocative photos of Everett? That answer will forever change Everett and Reid’s life together.
Message of Love opens June 1983 as Reid and Everett are attending a benefit dinner for handicapped kids in Pittsburgh. The affair for a local non profit was organized by Everett’s mother who has moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to her son. We get a glimpse into their present day relationship and a few remembrances of the past before we flashback to February 1980 the starting time for the majority of Message of Love.
There are so many great elements of Message of Love, the first being the time period of the story. The 80’s are well represented here and the in-depth research done by Jim Provenzano shows. The story is full of 80’s cultural notations, from the ever present video stores and Sony Walkman’s to the Rocky Mountain Horror Picture Show where audience participation is starting to spread out from NYC where it started. We get Spandau Ballet’s “True”, The Spinner’s “Working My Way Back to You” and of course The Pretenders’ “Message of Love”. Provenzano gets the feel of the times just right. Reid and Everett’s homosexuality is somewhat more accepted by their peers and families and the protests of the 60’s and 70’s has for the most part changed from anti war demonstrations to anti-nuclear protests after the accident at Three Mile Island in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania in 1979. Such notable events are mentioned throughout the narrative helping to further establish the time frame and setting.
Of utmost importance to Reid and Everett’s story is Everett’s disability as it impacts every aspect of their life together. Lumbar fracture, partial paralysis. Four life changing words. And it is here that Provenzano does some of his best work. Starting in Every Time I Think of You and continuing into Message of Love, the reader is pulled first hand into Everett’s hard won adjustment to his disability, his mental and emotional state directly after his accident as viewed by Reid. Reid not only sees the struggles that Everett goes through but also Reid’s adjustment of his long term goals in order to help support his lover in every way possible. One of the things I loved about the first story is that they still acted like the 17 year olds dealing with all the uncertainty and pain that happens for Everett to accept his disability and go forward and for Reid to accept the change in Everett.
Now at college and away from home for the first time (the exception being Everett’s rehabilitation), they start to experience all the new freedoms and personal growth that change brings. For Everett, it is the everyday challenge of getting around campus, dorm life, and transportation. Reid and Everett both mention the relative ease of traveling around Temple University because of its wide sidewalks and flat ground. Also because Temple had a Students with Disabilities Dorm.
Both stories take place prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities”. So we watch as Everett has to work hard to get around such hurdles as a lack of ramps, too many stairs and other hardships for the disabled made easier by the handicapped accessibility we see today. Then we get a deeper, more uncomfortable look into Everett’s daily life as Reid watches people overlook Everett and talk only to Reid when they are together. We see the cloak of invisibility that seems to fall over people in wheelchairs as those more able to navigate pass them by without notice or equal treatment. Or Reid’s frustration as he acknowledges that some of the people/students regard Reid as some sort of “guide dog” for Everett instead of seeing him as Everett’s boyfriend.
Provenzano describes with great sensitivity the impact of Everett’s disability on their relationship, from living arrangements to their ability to have sex. There are moments in their relationship that just ring with authenticity where Reid is prone to be overprotective and as a result Everett needs to reinforce his own need for independence and assistance on his own terms. That’s an honest relationship, warts and all. We see them argue and listen to their internal insecurities. We also get a factual look at sex and the sex act between Everett and Reid. For some readers, this aspect of the story might be more raw and factual then is wanted. Because, honestly, the author realistically lays out the physical limitations and logistics for both Reid and the reader as to what Everett can feel, his life with catheters, and what ablutions are required in order for them to have sexual relations. Sometimes frustrations and miscommunication ensue. Spontaneity is out, planning is in. And that includes defecation. Too much information? Perhaps. But it conveys to the reader exactly what Everett’s life is like and makes it and Everett real.
Jim Provenzano includes positive elements as well in Everett’s adjustment to life with a disability. It’s the joys of relating to children like Everett from the summer camp for special needs children where Everett and Reid act as counselors to the rough and tumble sports team that Everett plays on. Bringing all these extra layers and facts into Reid and Everett’s life together helps to connect the reader intimately to their romance and growing commitment to each other.
Message of Love chillingly brings in the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic and the beginnings of public awareness. Its introduction in the story is subtle but grows steadily throughout until it will have a major impact on the main characters and those around them. First a small mention in the newspaper, then an article that their landlady brings to Reid’s attention, and our knowledge of the times and the disease just ramps up our anxiety and concerns for characters we have come to love through two stories.And always at the center is the love and romance between Reid and Everett, painstaking in its growth and so satisfying in its depth of feeling and commitment that we never once question their love for each other. I fell in love with these two young men in Every Time I Think of You and that love affair continues here in Message of Love.
The narrative moved at a slower rate than in the previous novel which is to be expected as it lacks the dramatic impact of Everett’s accident. The details of the reality of Everett’s daily regimen and physical bodily functions sometimes slowed the tale’s momentum down to a much more leisurely pace than most readers might want. Perhaps if you looked at it as less a total romance and more of a journey of two young men coming of age and growing together into adulthood and a loving commitment, then the richness of its details and the complexities of its characters will make this a story to remember.
If you are new to Reid and Everett’s story, then begin with Every Time I Think of You. If you are familiar with that novel, then Message of Love is a story not to be missed. No matter, this is a wonderfully satisfying and uplifting novel, certainly one of Scattered Thoughts Best of 2014.
Every Time I Think of You by Jim Provenzano
Message of You (sequel) by Jim Provenzano
Cover Art; Getty Images. Used with permission. Cover Design: Kurt Thomas
Paperback, first, 372 pages
Published March 15th 2014 by Myrmidude Press
ISBN 0615669247 (ISBN13: 9780615669243)