A guest review by Jenre
A sweet, well written story involving two young prisoners who find comfort and security in the arms of each other.
Andy Bingham got behind the wheel after a night of heavy drinking and set in motion a series of events that would change his life forever. On his first night in prison after his drunk driving conviction, his cellmate, Jesse Cohen, surprises him by crawling into his bed. The sex is impersonal, not at all Andy’s style, but somehow exactly what he needs, and it feels so good to be close to someone again that he doesn’t question it.
The two men gradually forge a friendship, to their mutual surprise. As Andy learns more about the dark periods in Jesse’s past, they begin to understand that they have more in common than they once suspected. Andy and Jesse are on a slow and painful road, and they will struggle to acknowledge something of substance between them… and to discover whether what they have can survive the tough road that lies ahead.
I picked up this novella because I’d really enjoyed Rachel West’s previous and début book, Everything Under the Sun, and wanted to see whether she could sustain that quality into her next book. Although I still enjoyed The Cellmate, and thought the writing just as strong, I had a few more niggles about this book than I did the previous one.
It’s Andy’s first night in prison after being sentenced for DUI and causing a crash which put a single mother in a wheelchair. He’s bewildered, lonely and scared, especially of his new cellmate, who looks rough and dangerous. As lights go out and Andy tries to sleep, his cellmate climbs into bed with him and they have sex, thus starting an odd relationship which, over time, deepens into much more than sex.
The story is told in the third person from Andy’s point of view, and I have to admit I didn’t like Andy very much at first – perhaps for as long as over half the book. This was due to a couple of reasons: Firstly, he’s a spoiled rich kid, used to a life of privilege, who goes to college and spends most of his time getting drunk. His decision to drive whilst drunk is what has led to him being imprisoned, and although he felt very guilty about what he had done, I didn’t feel he was sufficiently sorry, at least at first. Secondly, Andy treats his ex-boyfriend quite appallingly. Admittedly Dean (Andy’s ex) was very clingy and fell quickly, and perhaps inappropriately, in love with Andy, but the callous way Andy treats him, even whilst in prison showed a cruel streak to Andy which meant I didn’t really like him. Whilst the first of these reasons is addressed by the end, and I felt that Andy was sufficiently sorry for his actions by the end of the book, the way he treats Dean, isn’t concluded satisfactorily. It made me feel very sorry for Dean, and I wonder whether the author plans to tell us Dean’s story in the future. I hope so because I worried that Dean would be very upset over the way Andy dealt with his feelings.
What did surprise me about the story was how the focus wasn’t really on prison life with its danger and drudgery – although there are a few minor mentions of incidents which happen in the prison. Instead the focus is on the development of what turned out to be a sweet and tender romance between Andy and Jesse. I liked Jesse a great deal, especially the contrast between the hard exterior with his gentle nature. When the details of how he came to be in prison are revealed, I felt very sorry for him and was glad when events conspired to make his life better – all through meeting Andy and coming to terms with what has happened in his life, and how to move on from that. I would have liked to have had some of the book from Jesse’s point of view, especially as he’s the ‘strong silent type’, but I also understand that this was supposed to be Andy’s story, and that as a reader I was supposed to share in Andy’s frustration every time Jesse refuses to speak to him, or acknowledge what is happening between them.
As an emotional drama the story was compelling, but not too overwhelmed by the grim life of state prison. There were a number of light-hearted moments too, to relieve some of the intensity of the story. This was mainly done through the character of Reynaldo, another inmate and in the sweetness of the romance between Andy and Jesse. Much of the story is made up of sex, as this is how the changes in the relationship are charted at first – from the impersonal sex at the beginning, to the tender way they make love near the end of the story – so I didn’t mind that and felt it was an important part of the journey, rather than added on for titillation. If I have any niggles about the sex at all, it’s that many of the other inmates knew what was happening in the cell between the heroes at night, and even knew that it had developed beyond sex, yet it wasn’t a problem. That was perhaps rather unrealistic within the context of the setting.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book: The setting was unusual; the characters well drawn and interesting; and the writing good. If you’re looking for a book which mixes hot sex with a sweet romance story then you can’t go wrong with The Cellmate.