Review summary: This book was really enjoyable and the MCs were surprisingly poignant
It’s Tucker Locke’s ten-year college reunion, and he doesn’t have much to show for himself. Sure, he’s a successful lawyer with a nice car and a nice apartment, but his life is empty, and Tucker knows why. A decade ago, not ready to come out of the closet, he left Whit Jamison behind.
Tucker’s spent ten years pretending to be straight—ten years thinking about his mistakes. But all the time in the world couldn’t prepare him for the reality of seeing Whit again. Whit’s taller, more mature, more attractive than ever, and every bit as out and proud as he was ten years ago. Time hasn’t changed the chemistry between them, and it looks like Tucker might get a second chance. All he has to do is brush aside the years of lies and embrace one powerful truth.
I have reviewed most of Janey Chapel’s books since she was first published, and False Start indicates how much her writing has matured since Maritime Men which she released almost 3 years ago. Her prose and dialogue have always been good but in False Start there is a new depth to her protagonists and her prose is richer.
Tucker was in his senior year in college when he met Whit who was a freshman. The buzz and attraction Tucker felt for Whit was immediate and intense. Tucker compartmentalized his life between classes, going out with his friends, and having secret trysts with Whit which started right away and went on for the entire 8 months of his final year in college, until Whit dared to ask for more — a date like a regular couple — just before Tucker’s graduation. That was when their house of cards came tumbling down as Tucker’s two worlds collided. There was no way he was going on a date with Whit as that would be an admission in public (something that horrified him) that he was having sex with another man.
The last time they saw each other was at the same movie theatre where Whit had invited Tucker on their date. Tucker’s most shameful memory was not coming to Whit’s defense when his homophobic friends insulted him as he was waiting in line to buy his ticket. Tucker, admittedly a coward, held the hand of his date while he avoided looking at Whit who bore the brunt of his friends’ ridicule without responding. Their last private moment was when Whit followed him as he was buying candy and he told him to get lost. Shortly after this incident Tucker left town without saying goodbye to Whit because he couldn’t face the look of disappointment in his eyes – the same disappointment he saw in the mirror every day. He never returned to his hometown, not even to see his family.
During the intervening years Tucker lived a pretty barren life. He had no friends or romantic attachments, and the few women he had sex with were all built like the Whit he remembered and he pretended they were the man he couldn’t forget. As for other men, there was no one, so technically he wasn’t in the closet, at least that’s what he told himself.
Then Tucker received an engraved invitation to attend his 10-year class reunion.
He arrived early in Danesboro and tried to tell himself it wasn’t because he was anxious to see Whit, however the first person he saw was the man he hadn’t been able to get out of his mind and heart for 10 long years, but the man who stood before him bore no resemblance to the teenager he left behind. Whit had grown up and eclipsed Tucker physically as well as mentally and Tucker realized then what he had lost. He wanted this new Whit but was he ready emotionally to move out of the wreck that his life had become and embrace the person he loved, regardless of the repercussions?
This story is told from both protagonists’ first person POVs although we don’t get to spend as much time in Whit’s head as we hear mostly from Tucker, but when Whit told his side of the story his voice was distinctive, matter of fact and funny. He painted a touching picture of his supportive and remarkable parents and credited them for the way he turned out when he told them he was gay. When Whit described his life it was as if he were having a conversation with me as he talked about Danesboro and what the townspeople were like as well as his memories of Tucker.
Whit had had a crush on Tucker for years, since he was in high school, and he couldn’t believe his luck when they became f**kbuddies during his freshman year in college. He and Tucker met in out of the way places that smelled like mildew or worse, but he accepted what Tucker dished out because he was in love with him, until everything went sour as he recognized that Tucker was a coward who would never acknowledge him and he came back down to earth, but there was no pity party. Whit was so balanced and likable that I fell in love with him and wondered what he saw in Tucker.
False Start was emotional, raw and sad as Tucker stripped himself bare and admitted he had wasted much of his life running from his problems and hiding from himself. He had always run since the days when he had been on his college’s track and field team because he enjoyed it and also to relieve his stress – it was his ritual. Running was the catalyst for every decision he had avoided, and he had nothing to show for the years since he left his hometown. He had many questions he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer because he was afraid, so he ran to escape them, realizing too late that you can’t outrun yourself and now he had to face the music.
This short story packed a lot of emotional punch and Janey Chapel proved that you don’t have to write a novel length book to have characters that resonate and a memorable story. The characters were realistically drawn as Tucker’s flawed persona played out and he saw that at 32 years of age he had wasted his life hiding and running from himself and for what? Everyone he knew in college had gone on with their crummy lives and even if he didn’t envy who they had become at least their lives weren’t empty. At last he understood that no one cared who he was or what he did and he had hurt the one person he loved.
Although Tucker’s and Whit’s story was poignant it wasn’t angsty. The author painted their story with a brush on a palette that brimmed with a zest for life even though one protagonist seemed to favour darker colours. The clarity and richness of the prose drew me in and kept my interest throughout. If I wanted anything it was more of Whit’s voice as I became attached to his perspective on love and living a rich and full life without giving a hoot for others’ opinions. As for Tucker, he realized at last that some days are meant to just sleep in.