No book is ever read in an experiential vacuum.
Any reader brings to a novel their world view, their pain and their sorrow, their hopes and their joys and all of them go into how they react to any story, often dialling it up or shaping into ways more intense and affecting than a fellow reader may experience.
This became abundantly clear to this reviewer when they dived into the romantic delights of Annabeth Albert’s gay rom-com Out of Character, the second her True Colors series which follows Conventionally Yours – while connected, the two can be read as standalones – in which two onetime best friends turned mortal high school enemies with significant bitter history between them suddenly find themselves back in each other’s lives.
Milo Lionetti, a jock who forsook the nerdy LEGO and games of his youth in order to better fit in with his hyper-masculine soccer teammates, suddenly shows in the game shop where former best bud Jasper Quigley works, paying his way through his college degree.
As dorky as Milo is muscular and sporty, Jasper, who has a big heart, a love of playing collectible card games at a highly competitive level, is shocked his friend-cum-enemy before him, all the resentment, hurt and anger from years of bullying come straight back to the surface.
In short, he has zero interest in having anything to do with his former tormentor, and only agrees to help Milo when he pleads for Jasper’s help in recovering some rare and highly valuable cards he lost in a drunken game the night before (Jasper extracts though a promise that he will only helps if Milo dresses for charity card games they conduct weekly in the paediatric ward of the local hospital).
“‘I’ll ask him.’ Heck. Now I [Jasper] needed Milo to continue this gig, and that was not a comfortable thought at all. I much preferred bein the guy swopping in with the big save, not the person needing a hand. My neck itched. He’d better agree. And now I had that much more pressure to help him find the replacement cards. I might need more than good luck to pull this off.” (P. 58)
Milo admits to Jasper that his life is spinning out of control, and that he desperately wants to change and become the good guy he’s always seemed destined to become when he and Jasper were boyhood friends.
Understandably Jasper is intensely cautious, something that resonated with this reviewer, a gay man who was horrifically bullied at school and who blanched inwardly and deeply at the idea of anyone who’s made my life hell walking back into it, and then having the audacity to ask for my help.
Albert captures the furious reluctance this would engender to such a pinpoint accurate degree that it’s all too easy to put yourself in Jasper’s position and wonder how the hell you’d react.
Yes, this is a rom-com and meet-cutes and impossible scenarios are very much the order of the day but to have all that past pain and hurt come rushing back to meet you in person would be intimidating to an almost overwhelming degree and Albert captures it perfectly while also managing to make us realise how much Milo regrets his past actions and wants to change, injecting vulnerability which is readily apparent including, crucially, to Jasper.
The stage is set for the mother of all reunions but will it go the way either of them expect?
Of course not, this is a romantic comedy where the unexpected abounds and the outrageously impossible has a cosy, redemptive home.
It’s the way though that Albert takes the raw pain of the past, interestingly on both their parts but most understandably on Jasper who bore the greater part of the hurt and betrayal – she thankfully does not equivocate Jasper’s years-long wounding with Milo’s regret which struck a chord with this reviewer because it reflects what would happen in real life – and fashions it into something altogether entirely and naturally, impossibly romantic.
Sometimes, it all feels a little perfect and neat and tidy and there’d likely be way more recriminatory bumps in the the road to reconciliation, even if Jasper is a guy with a big heart and a forgiving soul, but overall Albert nails what it would be like to find yourself having to simultaneously deal with your past, have a huge amount of promising awkwardness in your present and be slowly but surely discovering that your once discarded, now revived friendship, might be about to become something altogether else entirely.
That’s a lot to process and Jasper struggles right through most of Out of Character with how to respond to Milo’s wholly unexpected re-entry into his life and with his former bully’s admissions on all kinds of things from his family to his school and home life, and how he feels about Jasper.
How he has always felt about Jasper (spoiler alert: it’s not bad; in fact, it’s actually pretty good).
“‘I won’t.’ The laughter was gone now, and I [Milo] wanted it back because the sudden tension in his muscles reminded me of all the ways we could still fail. All the ways that I could let everyone down. And now, so much more seemed to be on the line. I’d never dared to imagine something this good, and now the thought of losing it made my skin clammy. I held him closer, trying to keep him with me as long as I could.” (P. 236)
This is why this reviewer found his own life experience coming into play.
Back in the day, and it’s day way further back that I am comfortable admitting, gay romance like this in written form was the stuff of pipe dreams and ceaseless hoping; you never saw yourself in rom-coms of any kind, all of which were strictly heteronormative, with LGBTQ+ love relegated to steamy fiction and porn.
But in Out of Character there’s a glorious air of love and romance, albeit fantastically complicated, brewing between two young men who have tons of baggage, of different kinds but baggage all the same, and aren’t quite sure how to get to to a future that neither envisaged but which is just as wonderful and valid as any other romantic possibility.
Reading as Albert takes you through this quirkily messy but heartfelt romance is a joy on all levels, but even more so when it was denied you in your youth and you can play catch in the here and now.
Even more wonderfully though for young queer people feeling their way through the murky surrounds of love and relationships right now, beautifully written and charmingly alive LGBTQ+ romances like Out of Character are a rousing affirmation that you are normal, your love is absolutely normal and you just as human and loved as the next person.
Out of Character is a delight – rich and wonderfully flawed heartfelt characters who feel more real than many inhabitants of rom-com stories, a slow-burning turn to something deep and meaningful than is part fairytale, part accessibly real dealing with a painful past and a narrative than doesn’t go in for the melodramatic and the emotionally hackneyed but keeps it real, keeps it promising and keeps it loved up in a way that speaks to our hearts and reminds us that love does heal all wounds, and often in ways that leave us happily breathless with surprise.