Rating: 4.75 stars
Pushing forty, Charlie Howard’s life is caught in a pattern of pain and routine. After a disabling accident left Charlie’s body more broken than able, he retired from the force and became a professor at a community college teaching criminal justice and forensics. The aftermath of the accident did more than leave him with almost crippling pain, it deprived him of his boyfriend as well. One who wouldn’t stick around for his surgeries and recovery. Charlie’s days are filled with phone calls from his sisters, teaching and chats with his friend and co worker. Jeanine.
The days merge together and Charlie watches the world pass by from his apartment in the building owned by his grandmother. Charlie is afraid to move forward with his life, hiding behind a wall of “I’m Fine” until he meets a haircolorist named William housesiting for Charlie’s third floor neighbor. From the moment that Will drops a flower pot off the balcony that lands at Charlie’s feet, the fey, flamboyant man seems determined to invade Charlie’s life. Glitter twinkling around the eyes, and hands always fluttering in motion, Will seems like the very embodiment of transience to Charlie. But to Charlie’s consternation, everything about Will speaks to Charlie too. He wants to protect him, make him safe, kiss him and so much more. Lucky for Charlie, Will wants much the same from him. Their quick bed room encounters start looking more like dates and their feelings for each other deepen even as they go unexpressed. Both men must overcome their pasts before a new future can be written for them both. Only time will tell if they are up to the challenge.
In a genre populated with stories of instant love and relationships that just fall into place, Play It Again, Charlie is that gem of a novel where love is hard won, a relationship develops at a snail’s pace, and only after two totally different, difficult men learn to communicate. This novel is long, frustrating, irritating, illuminating, and so very satisfying at 370 pages. Even more impressive, the story gets better with each subsequent read, as the reader is now familiar with the flow of the dialog and the reticence of it’s main character so that many qualities you might have missed the first time around now shine through even more brightly. There are so many strengths to this book, it is hard to know where to start.
Cooper’s characters are the pillars upon which this story rests, and their shoulders are most definitely up to the task. Each could have been a caricature but in Cooper’s hands, they thrive, breathe and grow into our hearts. Charlie Howard is especially impressive. There is so much depth to Charlie that clarity of character comes together only over a length of time. The story is told from Charlie’s POV and when we meet him, Charlie is graying, his face lined from the ever present pain radiating out from his hip, his hair has gotten long due to lack of care, and the suits he wears to class present a formal ill-pressed exterior, complete with bad ties. His injury forces him to leave the police force and his “cop social circle” behind and he retreats in isolation to his apartment. Charlie take his responsibilities seriously and shoulders the weight of his family’s needs without complaint. Repressed, honorable, and hurting. Charlie is such a complex man that it is hard to get a feel for how he really looks to those around him, caught up in his own vision of himself. It’s Charlie’s self image that’s presented initially to the reader. It’s not until William, “Will” as it were, comes into play, that we start to see Charlie as others do. Then a whole new portrait of the man is revealed, tall, handsome, firm, gentle, and partly Hispanic. Charlie is that wonderful character that continues to reveal itself as the barriers he constructed peel away to give us an even more complex personality far more vulnerable that we had anticipated.
Will is that “twink persona” that is heartbreakingly beautiful in his insecurities, brash in his embrace of his sexuality, and charming in his endless enthusiasm for life. Will is twenty nine when we meet him,although he comes across as much younger, flitting from one temporary home to another, never really landing anywhere for long. Even his business is run over the internet and is conducted at other peoples homes. Kicked out of his house at the age of 16 by parents who refuse to accept his sexuality, Will has only his sister to fall back on. Referred to more than once as “Holly Go Lightly”, that character is certainly applicable when it comes to Will. Will loves the old classic movies, preferably black and white with a cast that includes Humphrey Bogart. Stylish and fragile, impetuous and flighty, he parties hard, works harder and has little time for permanence in relationships. He also comes with Daddy issues and a vast amount of insecurity regarding his lack of education and “smarts”. But he watches Charlie from the balcony above as Charlie goes about his routine and something about Charlie calls to him, makes him want to push his way into “Sergeant Howard’s ” life in any way he can. Will is immediately engaging, capturing our hearts along with our hopes for his happiness. Watching Will try to win over Charlie’s wary, grumpy cat speaks volumes about the character and we trust him with our affections.
Will is that perfect match for Charlie. If Will is Holly Go Lightly, then Charlie is Linus Larrabee (that would be the Humphrey Bogart version, not the Harrison Ford one). Will has watched the movies. Charlie has read the books they were based on. Even their sexuality is yin to the other’s yang. But what they really have in common is an inability to communicate their wants and hopes to each other. Charlie is so reticent as to be non verbal at times, Will is his opposite, hiding his feelings and hopes behind constant chatter. Neither man is willing to risk the tentative stage they are at by talking to the other about what they really want to have in a relationship. It is so frustratingly real, so irritatingly authentic that the reader is often left wanting to deliver a strong slap up the head to each by the end of a page or chapter. When you find yourself grinding your teeth as the characters prevaricate about their feelings, then you know the author has done an outstanding job. R. Cooper does that outstanding job and then some. I now feel the need for major dental work having finished the book twice.
There is some kink involved, but it is on the light side, and made wholly believable in the context. Even the sexual side of their relationship lacks the communication they so badly need, as each starts assuming things about what the other wants and desires. Both men are as uncommunicative in bed as they are elsewhere, which makes complete sense given who they are. Insert another teeth grinding session. Sometimes their dialog feels so intimate that reading it comes across almost voyeuristic in nature, so close do we feel to them both. Everything about these men and their story will strike you as realistic, and uncompromisingly truthful.
Trust me when I say that this is a long, drawn out novel, but also trust me when I say it is wonderful, worthy of the time spent, and one you will remember and return to. This was the first book I have read by R. Cooper and now I will be searching out the rest. Do not let this remarkable story pass you by. Get it, curl up somewhere, and prepare to be transported into an unlikely love affair, worthy of Bogart and Bacall. or perhaps Audrey Hepburn. Will never could make up his mind.
Cover is nice. But Will’s hand needs a little polish, a little more sparkle.
Book available at Dreamspinner Press, Amazon and All Romance.