A Guest Review by Victor J. Banis
Summary Review: Sir Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” I might have put it that there are books, and good books, and there is art. Ruth Sims’ Counterpoint is art and well worth your making a meal of it, a delicious repast indeed for a reader with a romantic soul, a feast for the senses.
At eighteen Dylan Rutledge has one obsession: music. He believes his destiny is to be the greatest composer of the rapidly approaching twentieth century. Only Laurence Northcliff, a young history master at The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, believes in Dylan’s talent and encourages his dream, not realizing Dylan is in love with him.
But Dylan’s passion and belief in his future come at a high price. They will alienate him from his family and lead him on a rocky path fraught with disappointment, rejection, and devastating loss that kills his dream. A forbidden love could bring the dream back to life and rescue Dylan from despair and bitterness, but does he have the courage to reach out and take it? Will he deny the music that rules his soul?
The book opens at the Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, with Dylan Rutledge getting himself expelled—again. Dylan is obsessed with composing music and cares not at all about any other subject in school. But it’s not just any music that compels him, he wants to write his own kind of music, which many find objectionable. It doesn’t help matters that Dylan is stubborn and easily provoked, and so manages to make things more difficult for himself than they need be. Dylan’s only other interest is his school master Laurence, for whom he develops a crush. Laurence wants to be a writer and when he finds himself sexually attracted to Dylan, rather than surrender to his desire, he resigns from the school and moves to Paris, to pursue a writing career.
Dylan, too, soon finds himself in Paris, where he again links up with Laurence, and where he pursues his goals of mastering music composition. But along the way, he continues to alienate many of those who admire and support his work.
Some, though, remain convinced that his is the music of the future. The great violinist, Adler Schonberg, remains a champion and commissions a violin concerto from the young composer, which in time turns out to be Dylan’s Prometheus Concerto, but I can’t tell you more than that now.
The novel is set in the Victorian era, in England and in France, and the author adheres to the conventions of the Victorian novel—which is to say, the plot is complex, and not without some coincidence. As with the concerto, however, I can’t say much about it without spoiling matters for the reader. Suffice to say, there are plenty of ups and downs and not a few incidents to bring tears to the eyes. Along the way both late nineteenth century England and, in particular, Paris, are served up with an artist’s eye for detail:
The rue de Savies, where Laurence lived, was a narrow and crooked cobbled street with a sharp downward direction. Almost every weathered building had small wrought iron balconies and window boxes bursting with brightly colored geraniums of every hue. Shrill-voiced children played on the narrow pavement that outlined one side of the street. Two women stood talking; one of them held a struggling toddler by the hand and stopped talking long enough to sharply smack his bum. A baker called out his wares as he pushed a handcart of pies down the street. In front of one house an itinerant knife grinder worked, one foot busily working the treadle while a long, thin blade whined against the whirring stone.
Dylan passed a shop where cookware and furniture were repaired, and next to that was a shop with the sign Blanchisserie. He wondered what kind of business it was until he saw an energetic woman walk out laden with a basket of clean, ironed laundry in a stack that reached to her chin. There were few places where a tree could grow, but once in a while a stubborn seed had managed to burst through and grow to maturity. As a horse-drawn cart, almost too wide for the street, rattled down the cobbles, its driver was roundly cursed by the mothers who snatched their children out of harm’s way, as well as by the scissors grinder and others who had to move to permit its passage.
The characters are just right. There are no cardboard figures among them, they are all flesh and blood people, and notwithstanding the complications of the plot, the events that befall them spring from their own virtues and, most especially, their flaws. There are times when the protagonist is so exasperating one wants to hit him on the head with a fry-pan, while at the same time, you feel compelled to root him on. Laurence is likewise presented in full dimension, failings as well as virtues, but even the most minor characters, those with nothing more than a “walk-on,” come across as real people with lives of their own—not easy to accomplish, and a mark of major talent.
I know the author does not consider herself a writer of erotic material, and indeed there is nothing in this book that could be described as even remotely explicit, but if you like your male action, I think you’ll find some of her scenes intensely erotic, all the more so for their subtlety. Trust me, the romance here is more than holding hands and sighing wistfully. It takes talent to do it this discreetly and still make it hot:
In the bedroom Dylan said, “Light all the candles. I’ve imagined you naked so often I have to see if I was right.”
Dylan chuckled and did not answer until a half-dozen candles had flared to life. Then he said, “Don’t move. Don’t talk.” He removed Laurence’s clothing, article by article, and when Laurence stood naked, slim, and white, Dylan’s gaze roamed over him. “What were you thinking?” he said. “Your body is beautiful.” Then, looking downward, he added with a sly smile, “And I must say, my imagination was spot-on.” Even by the candlelight he saw Laurence blush, and he laughed softly.
Laurence protested in horror. “I’m too thin. And I’m—I’m almost middle-aged! Darkness would be far better for keeping your illusions alive.”
Dylan guided him down on the bed and on a whim lay down beside him, still fully clothed. “I am the maestro here,” he said. “You are not to move unless I tell you so. I’ll show you pleasure every way I know how.” And so he did, using his mouth, and tongue, and hands, not allowing Laurence to touch him in return. That was exquisite torment; he sometimes had to mentally count backwards to maintain control. Beneath his fingers he felt Laurence’s muscles draw tighter and tighter, and quiver with the effort not to move.
In short this is a wonderful read. If you like m/m fiction, and especially if you like historical fiction, I guarantee you will find Counterpoint tasty and fulfilling, and like an especially good dinner, you will contemplate it with pleasure long after you have finished. Highly recommended.
Counterpoint will be available from Dreamspinner Press on July 12.