I like romance and boys loving boys in my books.
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This is a difficult book to read, and even more difficult to review. It's not a romance, but a prequel to Passing On Faith, that explains Cat's backstory. It can be read as a standalone, as I haven't read Passing On Faith.
With great spiritual depth, A.M. Leibowitz tells the story of a young, happy, carefree Cat, whose exuberant self withers and dies after a horrific homophobic attack that sends him to the hospital, with injuries made worse by his medical condition. It tells us of friends who leave after Cat's spirit plummets and he takes vows of not speaking, of no sex, and no more colorful, trendy clothing. Simplicity, chastity, and silence are his life now, and he memorizes parts of the Bible which are the only words he will speak. It tells us of supportive parents, who don't know how to deal with their "new" son, but who are steadfast in giving him the space and time he needs.
Ms. Leibowitz's books are generally not firmly planted in the M/M Romance genre, which is something I fully appreciate. Their characters tend to span the spectrum of LGBTQUIA, and their books aren't usually traditional romances, and therefore not tropey. This book here is no different. While Cat at the beginning of the book has a boyfriend (in secret, bc the BF isn't out), he spends most of the book trying to find himself again after the attack. His spirit is so broken that he believes he brought the almost rape on himself, and therefore needs to change everything that makes him Cat, so it can never happen again. He doesn't realize that he's not to blame for someone wanting to take what's not theirs to take, and that rape isn't about sex, but power.
There were times when I wanted to hug him fiercely, and there were times when I wanted to slap the stupid right out of him. I formed an emotional connection to the character, and wanted him to get the help he needed.
The author explores the family dynamics very well too - Cat's illness (hemophilia) is used as somewhat of an excuse by his parents to limit him as an adult making his own choices, and while they are supportive of his id as gender-queer, they do not want him to be sexually active, because of the issues sex can cause, due to the hemophilia.
After the trauma, Cat experiences many facets of being a victim - self-blame, anger, fear, guilt, and shame - which all confirm for him that his vows are the right way to move forward. The author also explores the conflict between Christianity and being LGBTQUIA, a theme that is likely familiar to most people on this spectrum. How many times have we been told that God hates us, because we're queer? How often do we see on the news that Christians deny us the right to even exist? How long did it take us to have the right to marry, in a country where Church and State are supposed to be separate entities, and freedom of religion doesn't give one the freedom to impose their particular brand of religion on someone else? Here, Cat's beliefs serve as a coping mechanism that at once helps and hinders him, a theme which progresses through the book, until Cat no longer needs it to cope.
In this case, the vows that Cat takes allow him to reclaim the part of himself that he lost during the attack - his autonomy to make decisions for himself - and they actually help him on his road to recovery. He has internalized some of the hate brought down on him but works through it. At the end of the book, which ends on a hopeful note, and seems to lead into Passing On Faith, Cat has, for the most part, recovered what he lost that night, and he's well on his way to forging his own path.
He has help, of course, primarily in the form of David, a nurse at the hospital. David's approach to Cat's silence, by not pushing him like the rest of the people in his life, by not forsaking him like his friends, goes a long way in building trust between the two, and eventually falling in love. Their romance is, while sweet and happy, still somewhat secondary to the rest of their relationship, but it allows Cat to safely explore his sexuality again, and he comes to rely on David heavily.
David promises Cat to never leave him, but cannot keep that promise due to circumstances beyond his control. However, his faithfulness up to that point has given Cat the strength to cope and keep moving forward without him.
The book isn't unicorns and flowers and glitter, but it's a book worth reading, showing a young man's road to recovery after a hateful attack that leaves him reeling and coping as best as he can. I cried a lot. I used a lot of tissues to dry my tears. You probably will too. Still, this book is definitely worth your time.
** I received a free copy of this book from its author. A positive review was not promised in return. **