A guest review by Victor J. Banis
Summary: the author pulls all the stops out in this gripping story of love, tragedy and redemption, set against a backdrop of professional tennis. An emotional roller coaster that will hold the reader enthralled until the last, fully satisfying page.
Now Daniel has another chance at the tour by coaching tennis prodigy Connor Lin to a Grand Slam championship win. He shares his chance with Jared by convincing him to return to the pro circuit as Connor’s doubles partner.
Competing on the world tour is challenging enough, but Daniel and Jared also face major media attention, political fallout from the pro association, and a shocking amount of hate that threatens Connor’s career in tennis, Jared’s love for Daniel, and Daniel’s very life.
When I first looked at this novel, I thought, “Oh, no, a jock book.” I mention this right up front because I suspect one or two of you might have the same reaction. Let me put your minds to rest. This novel is about tennis in the same sense that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is about the Scottish moors.
Yes, the author uses the world of professional men’s tennis as a setting for his story, and yes, there is plenty of tennis action in it. But even if you are not a tennis fan, the author’s knowledge of tennis and his love for the sport are infectious. You will find yourself pulled into the story regardless—because, again, the story isn’t about tennis, it’s about homophobia, and love, and courage and grace under pressure and, finally, redemption—in short, the very elements that make all great stories gripping. And make no mistake, this is a great story—surely the one Alan Chin was fated to write—and you will find it gripping.
After being driven from professional tennis for their homosexuality, Daniel Bottega and his partner Jared Stoderling have found sanctuary of sorts—Daniel as a country club tennis instructor, and Jared in a bottle. Now, Daniel is asked to coach a talented young, and straight, tennis player, Conner Lin. Daniel sees in this the chance of a new beginning for him and Jared, and he convinces Jared to come on board as Conner’s doubles partner. And from the beginning, the author’s love for his protagonists is as real as his love for tennis.
“He kissed me again, and in the quiet wake of his kiss, the surrounding sounds became loud: rustling leaves overheard, the pop of the ball, the chirp of tennis shoes on pavement, the boys’ insistent grunts.”
Of course, once again they find themselves paying the price for being openly gay; but this time, Jared determines that they will not shrink into a closet, they will let the watching world know who and what they are.
“Well, hell, what’s next,” Sikes said, “players kissing?”
“Let’s give it a try and see,” Jared said. He seized the back of my neck and drew me to him, kissing me on the mouth. The move surprised me so much it took me a moment to pull away.
The crowd fell silent.
# # #
“The first time,” Jared said, “everything happened behind closed doors. That’s how they beat us, by keeping us afraid and in hiding. This time we’ll flaunt it. They’ll probably still beat us, but at least everyone will know why.”
There’s no shortage of action and the theme of homophobia adds plenty of suspense along the way, and it looks early on as if the three players will make it to the top of their sport just fine, and you begin to breathe a little sigh of relieve and pleasure. So far, it’s been a fine read, and the good guys are winning.
Then, in an astonishing display of authorial authority, the writer just plain pulls the rug from under the reader. You find yourself both horrified and mesmerized, on a non-stop roller coaster ride that carries you right to the last page. I don’t want to spoil the read for anyone by giving too much of the plot away, but I can safely tell you that the love Daniel and Jared share is sorely tested in ways that will break your heart and ultimately nourish it. I had to stop reading more than once because I couldn’t see the pages through the tears. Yes, it’s that moving. And that was reading the book for the second time.
If you’ve ever been in love, you will agonize with both these young men, both of them wrong and both of them right, as they try to grope their way back to one another in the wake of the tragedy that has driven them apart.
“If I die today, wouldn’t it be better if we had made love last night?”
“Better is putting your skinny butt on a plane and getting you somewhere safe.”
“It’s okay to hate me a little. Sometimes I hate you too. I hate your good legs, your strength, your ability to ignore me.”
His face froze with pensive rejection.
I said, “We need to fight them, not each other.”
And as with all his writing, the author has more for the reader than just details of plot. There is beauty and wisdom here, but he writes as well of Life’s ugly side, of the horrors of war, and of many different kinds of suffering. When Jared is cheated of a win by a gay-hating umpire, he tries to crawl back into the bottle, but Conners’ Grandfather Lin, who survived WWII in occupied China, will have none of that.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself and become a man. You think you have it hard? You think life is unfair? You are worse than a baby, crying, crying, crying.”
“Leave my house, old man,” Jared growled.
“I will tell you what a hard life is: being a fourteen-year-old boy chased from your home at gunpoint, watching aunts, uncles, cousins slaughtered like hogs, hiding in a cave, never seeing daylight, searching for food at night where there is no food, so you cut meat from bodies that the Japanese soldiers leave along the roadside. When the bodies go rank, there is nothing but grass, but that is never enough, so you watch your family grow weak and sick. Then you marshal the courage to sneak up behind a Japanese soldier and slit his throat in order to steal his food, so that your mother and father might live a few more days…”
There is beauty here as well, and wisdom. You come away from this book understanding yourself and humankind just a little better than when you started it, and a writer can’t do any better than that.
In the end, the author scores a grand slam win with the best gay sports novel I have yet read, bar none. And ultimately, you realize that it is the Alan Chin who is the Match Maker of the title, and the game he’s sharing with you is not the game of tennis, but the Game of Life.
If you love a beautifully written and heart rending love story with a true but very special Happy Ever After ending, I urge you not to miss this one.