The Cool Part of His Pillow

Title: The Cool Part of His Pillow
Author: Rodney Ross
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link:
Genre: Contemporary M/M
Length: Novel (340 pages)
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Guest Review by jeayci

Review Summary: This is a story of grief and healing, NOT a romance. Once I accepted that and started to care about the character, I enjoyed it.

Blurb: The midforties are that time in a gay man’s life when his major paradigm shifts from sexy to sensible. But when Barry Grooms’s partner of twenty years is killed on Barry’s forty-fifth birthday, his world doesn’t so much evolve as it does explode.

After navigating through the surreal conveyor belt of friends and family, he can’t eat another casserole or swallow much more advice, and so, still numb, he escapes to Key West, then New York. He embraces a new mantra: Why the hell not? He becomes so spontaneous he’s ready to combust. First, he gets a thankless new job working for a crazy lady in a poncho, then has too many drinks with a narcissistic Broadway actor. Next, it’s a nude exercise class that redefines flop sweat, and from there he’s on to a relationship with a man twenty years his junior, so youthfully oblivious he thinks Karen Carpenter is a lesbian woodworker.

Yet no matter how great the retreat from the man he used to be, life’s gravity spins Barry back to the town where he grew up for one more ironic twist that teaches him how to say good-bye with grace.

Review: I was anticipating this story as one of metamorphosis, that we’d experience Rodney bursting from the cocoon of grief and learning how to live Happily Ever After as a butterfly. Instead, most of the story takes place within the cocoon. A few chapters into it, I found myself remembering Billionaire’s Row (reviewed here by Aunt Lynn), wondering if this might be another non-romance from Dreamspinner. Indeed, like Billionaire’s Row, The Cool Part of His Pillow is ultimately a good story – though it took me a while to warm up to it – but it is NOT a romance. There are romantic elements, as Barry and Andy were together for 23 years before Andy’s death, and Barry’s memories of Andy and their relationship are woven throughout the story.  But because Andy died, those romantic elements all have a bittersweet tinge.

Barry comes across as a sort of Sex-in-the-Cityish bitchy type, and although I liked Sex in the City I had trouble liking him until I was more than halfway done the first time I read it. The second read, I wondered why I had disliked him so, even as I could still sort of see it. I can easily imagine his humor working for a lot of people, and they will probably love him. I just don’t tend to find it entertaining to make fun of other people as a primary source of humor, nor do I tend to like people who do so. The story is told in first-person POV, so we’re in Barry’s head, seeing the world through his eyes. Disliking him made it difficult to get into the story, and I trudged through the first 3/4 or so of the book on the first read. By the last 1/4 I had begun to care about him, and I finally became engaged in the story and read eagerly.

Despite not liking him, I cried for Barry’s pain when Andy died. And I looked forward to how he would be changed by the grief, hopefully into someone I could like. And then there was chapter after chapter about his pain and grieving process. It was well done and believable, but not particularly enjoyable. I love angst; Keeping Promise Rock is one of my favorite books, and I flat-out bawled a few times reading it. But I love Deacon and Crick and their crazy, wonderful family of choice. Perhaps if I liked Barry I would have been sympathetic to his ongoing grief, but because I was really looking forward to his (presumed) transformation, it was just tiresome. Or, more likely given how much more I liked him the second read, if I had known to expect the detailed processing of grief going in, I might have been able to appreciate it for the true-to-life depiction that it was.

The book is also full of cultural references, which I’m sure will delight many readers. Maybe if I got all of them I’d have enjoyed it more, but as it was it left me feeling like I was missing the joke a lot of the time. Which is perhaps a good analogy for what I suspect being Barry’s friend might feel like, though with the added suspicion that the joke is on you.

When Barry jumps back into the dating pool again, his adventures are entertaining, though I felt as sorry for the dates who had to put up with him as I did for him having to put up with the dates he described. Then Barry settles briefly into a May-December relationship with a man nearly half his age. Given a few more years to mature, I could see the potential for Jarod to become appealing. However, at that stage of his life I mostly found him to be an obnoxious brat. As far as I could see the only appeal was getting laid (and a hot young body; not to be underestimated 😉 ). Then again, I’m not sure what Jarod saw in Barry, either. I still didn’t like Barry at this point, though by then I was beginning to mind him a little less.

I finally started getting into it around Chapter Nineteen, and from Chapter Twenty on I had trouble putting it down. By then I really cared about Barry, and I got very teary several times. I loved the epilogue and how it completed the circle with the prologue. Barry is still single (again, this is NOT a romance!), but he’s moved through the grief to a place in himself where that butterfly can finally begin to emerge. He hasn’t found his “one true love” at the end of the book (that is still pretty clearly Andy) but he has begun to find himself. He is finally at a place where he could potentially fall in love with someone new and live Happily Ever After, if there’s a sequel. Even if there’s not, there’s a hopefulness about ending the story at this beginning place.

Psychology studies have found that two of the most lasting effects in any experience are the first and last (Primacy and Recency Effects). Because the prologue and epilogue were so well done, and so beautifully tied together, I finished the book with a feeling of satisfaction (and not just because I no longer had to be in Barry’s head!). It was also very well written, though with the occasional odd word choice (like ‘iterated’ when I suspect he meant ‘intimated’).

I really struggled with how to rate this one. I think the writing quality merits 4 stars, at least. But considering how much effort it took to get through the first 250+ pages the first time, I’d lean toward 2 stars. So I’m compromising on 3.5, because I liked it more on a reread. This is well worth reading if you’re looking for a realistic depiction of the grief process, and want a book that ends where life begins again. I think it’s probably easily a 4+ star read if you go into it with that expectation. Do not, however, pick it up when you’re in the mood for a romance!


  • This was a brilliant review jeauci, one of those when I am reading my fellow reviewers’ musings and thinking – OMG I want to write like you when I grow up :).

    Dreamspinner mismarketing the books is nothing new, as I am sure you know. The most annoying thing for me is that I *will* read the book which is not a romance, I read across the genres and I have no problem with mystery which has gay protagonist and little or no romance whatsoever, with literary gay fiction, with fantasy story where protagonists are friends and not lovers or not building the relationship. I will read all of that, what want however is to know in advance what kind of book I am buying and I will be really annoyed if I did not buy the book I thought I am buying. The blurb based on your review is indeed quite misleading, which is a pity. But may I say again how wonderful and in depth your review is? I will definitely consider this book for when I am in the appropriate mood.

    • Thank you, Sirius, coming from you that’s high praise indeed! :hurrah: You just made my day. You have no idea (well, maybe you do, lol) how much I agonized over writing this review, trying to get it just right.

      Like you, I will happily read anything (except horror :eek:), it just depends on my mood. But I want books to be labeled/marketed correctly, so that I know what I’m getting. :curse: Or, like King Perry, know going in to toss all expectations and just buckle in for the ride. 😆 When you do read this book, please let me know what you think of it!

      • And while praising I managed to misspell your name, sorry about that 🙂

        Yeah, the list of genres and themes which I will read is much MUCH longer than the ones I wont and the horror is the only genre I avoid completely lol. Yeah, sharing a brain does come in handy sometimes 🙂

        • No worries, it’s apparently trickier than it seemed to me when I picked it.

          We really do seem to be sharing a brain these days! Hmmm… world domination tomorrow? 😉 👿 :angel:

  • I’m a little disappointed to see this got 3.5 stars! I understand where you’re coming from with your comments at the end (and boy am I glad you didn’t give it 2 stars), but I think this is one of the best titles Dreamspinner has ever published, not as a romance publisher, but as a publisher, period. Titles like this remind me of all the amazing writers out there who could easily be making a fortune by selling their work to mainstream publishers; the caliber of writing is easily equal to anything we see on the NYT bestseller list (and then some). Seeing it get only 3.5 stars, and not 4 or 4.5 (or even 5+!), came as a bit of a shock.

    I agree that it’s a bit of a different story than many readers are accustomed to or expect from DSP or this genre in general, but I was blown away by the poignancy of Ross’s writing and his observations about the grief process. As someone who recently experienced the loss of a parent, so much of it resonated, more deeply than I was prepared for. There are turns of phrase in this story that broke my heart and made me jealous as a writer. Barry was awfully snarky and at times I wanted to tell him to STFU, yes, but I saw this as part of the flawed, very human way he’s portrayed. His bitterness and sense of alienation made me ache. He’s not a perfect man, and at times he realizes it as much as anyone else. With every page it became more and more clear to both him and the reader that he has a lot of learning and growing up to do despite his age and experience.

    Anyway, this is not to criticize your review, per se, because I think your comments are thoughtful and appropriate to the story, and it’s clear you put a lot of consideration into it. So let me not be misunderstood to that end. I just hate to think of visitors to the site being turned off this book because they think it’s not up to the standards of the other 4- and 5-star reads. It wasn’t what I expected it to be either, going in, but I was so moved and impressed by the story and its telling, I’m struggling a little bit with the idea that the book should be faulted for not matching up with the readers’ expectations. Perhaps more a fault of the blurb on the back, no? Or a sign that as the m/m genre is starting to expand and offer a greater diversity of stories, we should start adjusting our ideas about what the genre has to offer, too.

    Just my $0.02. Thanks for giving so much thought to (what I considered) a wonderful book.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed comment, Mal! And I’m glad this book worked so well for you. 🙂 Rating books is inevitably a subjective thing, so I hope prospective readers wouldn’t decide whether or not to read a book based solely upon my (or any) rating of it. There are some reviewers whose tastes are so opposite my own, if they hate a book I’ll probably love it. And vice versa: any book they love, I’m likely to hate. And a few with tastes so similar to mine, I’ll happily buy any book they rate 5 stars, even with no review or explanation.

      I think reader expectation plays a HUGE role in how a book is received, which is why I tried to make such a point for prospective readers not to pick this up when they’re in the mood for a romance. The blurb on the back was a large part of what set up my expectations, as was the fact that it’s published by Dreamspinner, a publisher from whom I’ve come to expect (with a very few exceptions) romances. If Dreamspinner wants to expand beyond romance to more mainstream and/or gay lit, I say more power to them! But they need to make it very clear which books fit in which categories so readers know what to expect.

      I think it’s wonderful the m/m genre is growing and expanding, and I’m happy to adjust my ideas about it accordingly. But I don’t think the marketing (and by that I mean combined blurb, publisher, etc.) do this book justice. Because of that, most readers will be surprised by what they experience once they start reading it. For some that surprise will be fantastic and they’ll rate it 5+ stars, for others it will be terrible and they’ll DNF it (and of course, everything in between too).

      I’ve also lost a parent (though not recently), and have enough other losses to appreciate what a realistic depiction this was of grief and loss, and coming to terms with how to go on anyway. I agree with your description of Barry, too. But for me the book was a very unpleasant surprise, right up until almost the end when I finally started to love it. Had I not been reading it for review, it would have been DNF by chapter 5. That would have been a shame, as I’d have missed out on a magnificent ending. Thus my struggle on how to rate it, but 3.5 stars ultimately felt like the most appropriate rating to me.

  • Thanks Bridget! 🙂

    It has a sort of HFN ending in that it’s hopeful. I loved the ending. Like I said, he’s not with anyone, so it’s definitely not a traditional romance. It’s sort of like Marie Sexton’s One More Soldier in that regard (reviewed here by Wave).

    But yeah, it’s not a good one if you don’t want to read about loss/grief.

  • I’m not a real big fan of the angst because I’ve dealt with enough loss/grief in my own personal life so I don’t particularly want to read about it. I love a good romance with a HEA (or at least a HFN) ending, so I think I’ll have to pass on this one.

    Well written review, though. 😉

  • Oef, this sounds like a story you have to be in a mood for. It does sound interesting, but maybe too much drama for me to handle.

    Thanks for the review though. I get your points and it was nicely explained

    • Thanks, Larissa, I worked hard on this one trying to figure out how to communicate all my ambivalence on it! I’m glad to know I succeeded. But I think you managed to say in one sentence what took me paragraphs: this sounds like a story you have to be in a mood for 😀

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