Title: Vanity Fierce
Author: Graeme Aitken
Cover Artist: not available
Publisher: Random House Australia
Amazon: Buy Link Vanity Fierce
Genre: Contemporary/recent historical
Length: 375 pages
Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Cryselle
Review Summary: Not exactly a romance, more of a look at gay life in the mid-90’s with a love story and laughter.
The ultimate comic novel of gay Sydney – Armistead Maupin meets Melrose Place at the Mardi Gras!
Stephen Spear is everyone’s golden boy (including his own). Blond, blue-eyed, blessed with every talent and advantage, he has the world falling at his feet. And he’s ready to trample all over it.
When Stephen falls for Ant, the only gay man he knows who still has chest hair, he is astounded to find his desire unrequited. Or is it? Ant is so inscrutable, it’s impossible to be entirely sure.
But Stephen is determined to get his man. And if the wiggle of his cute butt isn’t enough, then scheming, lying and manipulating is second nature to him. He’s too young to realise that love can be tricky enough without adding any extra complications.
Vanity Fierce is a love story that’s big on outrageous schemes, dark secrets and firm muscles.
I had read one of the author’s shorts a while ago, and so when he inquired if I was interested in this novel, I was ready to read and I enjoyed it on several levels.
The odd genre listing is because while Vanity Fierce was a contemporary when it was new (1998), it’s definitely a look at a very specific time, and simply isn’t transportable into current day. Which is fine—we need periodic reminders of what went before, because it affects our world now.
Our protag, Stephen, introduces himself to us while he’s in the Australian equivalent of high school and brings us along for the next few years of his life in Sydney, while he’s exploring his sexuality and trying to find his place in the world. Not that this is really a coming of age story either—Stephen isn’t that introspective. He is a lot of fun though.
He’s cheerfully amoral, with most everyone he meets getting wrapped around his little finger in short order. He’s not manipulative so much as able to see what people would like to do and then making it very easy for them to do it, particularly if it’s to his benefit. Some of his late teen exploits are coffee-snort inducing. (Do you want to preserve your sister’s virginity? he asks the wide-eyed brother of the nymphet he’s chastely dating, and the boy can’t get on his knees fast enough.) He builds a reputation as the over-achieving golden boy with a bright future ahead of him, the joy of his aging actress mother and the perplexity of his restrained but surprisingly complex father.
And then it’s into the world—and he seems to expect to coast on his past, except he’s having some trouble reconciling himself to being a not-nearly so big fish in a much huger pond, and his wiles have to adapt. There are—horrors!—people who don’t provide what he wants in exchange for a bit of carefully bestowed attention. And the real world has a lot of temptations—it’s more fun to hit the clubs than to hit the books. Once he’s come out to his parents, Stephen goes on to attend university with much wrangling over what he’s to study: something interesting and artistic, or more mundane but steadily lucrative, like law. He’s living in a raucous neighborhood, considered so disreputable that its name changes to something more proper depending on who’s talking. The transvestite hookers at the bottom of the stairs are occasionally friends and confidants, as well as funny and philosophical.
And into this mix drops the one man that Stephen is totally smitten with, and for a variety of reasons, can’t approach directly. Ant (short for Anthony but I never did quite get away from 6-legged picnic crashers) has dropped Stephen square into the friend zone, and Stephen is desperate to get out. He’s not used to being told “no” for any reason, and his plots and ruses to change Ant’s mind fuel a large section of the book. He needs a good smack for some of his tricks, but he made me laugh for his charming naughtiness.
This story doesn’t especially feel like a romance, even with Stephen’s pursuit of his unrequited love, who seems to be absolutely random in his choices and decisions. It’s more like a memoir in its structure, with the feel of the narrator telling stories from his life over a beer or six, shaded for maximum entertainment rather than strict truthfulness. It’s a really good time even when Stephen’s coming across as less than admirable (you’ll still snicker). Ant and Stephen have some wildly differing agendas.
About that HEA—it’s more of an HFN—and it’s an amazing thing. The last quarter of the book shoves Stephen into some serious growth, and it made me sniffle, in the best way, even with the foam. And I challenge anyone to read that last line and not smile.
The style has a flavor of Australia, enough to place it, but the slang isn’t overwhelming and indecipherable, and the whole is very accessible for the American reader. The descriptions are illustrative enough that we aren’t left in the dark about the implications of living in Woollahra or being gay in 1995.
Humorous (and yes, I nearly wrote humourous) with a serious undercurrent, and very entertaining. 4.25 stars