As a musician at the popular college café Coed Joe’s, high school senior Kai Manter is never lacking for male attention. Out, proud, free-spirited, and sexually aware, Kai sets his sights on his darkly Gothic and undeniably bad-tempered coworker, Jamie Arlotta, a freshman at the local arts university. Sporting long hair and alluring hippie style, Kai expects his interest will be reciprocated, with satisfying sex as the end goal. That’s what usually happens. But Jamie’s lessons in life have been harsher. Having been sexually abused by his older stepbrother for several years, Jamie has grown an impenetrable outer shell meant to keep the world at a safe distance.
Kai is angry at first when he takes the brunt of Jamie’s bad temper, but after Kai accidentally discovers the abuse Jamie has suffered, he wants to fix things. Kai’s plan is based on what he knows best—music—and he stages a “musical intervention” to let Jamie know he’s not alone and things can get better. When Jamie’s perspective changes and he emerges from his shell, Kai changes, too, gaining a whole new understanding of what sex can be when love is there too.
GAH!! Where to start? First off, trigger warnings! There is mention of non-consensual sexual violence in this book, though none of it is explicit. Also, please have tissues handy - you will need them.
This was a beautifully written story, pulled me in from the word go, with a voice that sounded authentic and believable, and themes that are of real importance.
Kai is an out and proud high school senior working as a musical performer at a coffee shop/hang-out and otherwise flirting and shmexing any boy who catches his eye. Not interested in a relationship, he hones in on one of the waiters at the shop, only to be harshly rebuffed by whom his friend Mandy, a waitress at the same shop, calls Pretty Vacant.
Jamie, the waiter, has a reputation of not connecting with anyone. He's nice enough to the customers and good at his job, but doesn't hang out with his co-workers or seeks out any friendships. A loner for quite some time, he's been written off by most of his peers.
Clearly, something is going on.
Kai, intrigued and slightly miffed, decides Jamie is a challenge. A couple of things happen that involve a huge burly guy named Evan (who initially claims Jamie owes him money), and Kai has sufficient intuition to realize that not all is as it seems.
Thus, he begins to pursue Jamie in the best way he knows - staging an intervention with his music, with the songs he sings. He begins to reach out, and as he learns more about what is really going on, the reader sees a huge shift in Kai's personality and perspective.
More angst ensues, but the two boys begin a relationship that from the start tugs on your heartstrings. I hurt for Jamie as more of his story comes out, and I was feeling hugely proud of Kai who does a complete 180 and keeps his approach slow and tender, knowing he has to move carefully to gain Jamie's trust.
I thoroughly enjoyed the supporting cast the author created, from Chuck (Charlie), Kai's big brother, Mandy, his friend, even Kai's parents - they all played a specific role without ever becoming cardboardish and flat. Sure, Mandy is queen bitch on occasion, but there's more depth to her than that, once she's aware of what's going on. Little by little, these people show Jamie that there is another way, that he doesn't have to deal with the issues in his life on his own, and that it's okay to let someone in, to let them help you.
Kai's character growth is tremendous, but so is Jamie's. He goes from being a scared rabbit using his "bitchy Jamie" persona to keep people away to standing up for himself and seeking resolution to the situation. He grows day to day, becoming stronger every time, without forgetting that he's standing on someone's shoulders for that boost he needed to take charge of the issue.
Sure, there are setbacks. Evan, Jamie's brother, is a troubled, evil person, and there were plenty of times when I would have liked to get my hands around his neck to choke the crap out of him. And while the issue wasn't resolved to my liking, it was resolved in a way that worked best for Jamie, empowering him because he gets to make the decision on it.
The theme that to understand a man one has to walk in his shoes for a few miles is repeated throughout. It's something that Kai has to learn just as much as Mandy does. Her derision of Jamie (Pretty Vacant) changes over time, and she learns that sometimes someone who keeps away isn't snotty or 'vacant' at all but hurting and dealing as best as he knows. It's a lesson we all need to learn.
I adored Chuck. He was the quintessential big brother, lending a helping hand and kicking Kai's ass when warranted. He listened, he helped, and he guided Kai to where he needed to be, to get a different perspective of things and to support Jamie as best as possible. And along the way, Kai learns that sexual intimacy is much enhanced if there is also love at the core.
Throughout this book, "Wind Beneath My Wings" kept running through my mind. Kai, with help from his family, really becomes that uplifting wind to help Jamie soar, to help him fly.
It was gorgeous. I cried many tears, but they were all worth it. Kai's voice is authentic throughout this book, written entirely in his limited POV, and thus we get treated to his inner monologue and see the growth he experiences, from being confused as to why he's so intrigued by Jamie to starting to get it to really understanding that his job in Jamie's recovery is not to lead the charge, but to be the uplifting wind under Jamie's wings. At its core, this book describes a beautiful first love between the two boys who must overcome difficult obstacles to succeed.
Open your eyes to the world around you. Sometimes, all it takes is a good look at someone with different eyes, and a little intervention to help them along.
No man is an island. We'd do well to remember that.
And you can't really know what anyone is going through until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Remember that too.
This is a YA title from Harmony Ink Press and was given to me as an ARC free of charge. A positive review was not promised in return.
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