Desert Isle Keeper
A Careful Heart
I would have thought it unlikely that a beautiful, romantic novel could include domestic abuse, but the author of A Careful Heart has proven me wrong. Ralph Josiah Bardsley uses the story of two close friends to introduce this oft-neglected subject in queer romance. A Careful Heart follows Travis Gaines and Stephen Davis from childhood to their early twenties. One finds romance, and the other thinks he has but pays a high price for his ‘perfect guy’ and ‘perfect life’. The family dynamics of both characters are drawn well, giving us sufficient information to augment the story without lingering and taking the focus away from the main characters – although I have to admit a great fondness for one character’s father.
Travis and Stephen grow up next door to each other in a small northern New Hampshire town. Being born only a month apart, they grow up as brothers who face life’s hurdles and milestones together. Travis is athletic, popular and handsome whereas Stephen has no sense of his own good looks, and is shy, intelligent and eventually nicknamed ‘The Ghost’ by his friend. No one really notices Stephen unless he speaks up, but as the best friend of Travis, he suffers no bullying or harassment. They survive high school where, towards the end, Stephen accidentally finds out his friend is gay. He isn’t upset by the discovery, just by the fact that Travis didn’t tell him – as they usually share everything. Stephen also finds out that Travis and even their parents thought Stephen was gay too, but he admits he has never been attracted to a man – or to a woman as yet, either.
They separate for College, which Stephen seems to enjoy more than Travis does, and most importantly, Stephen falls madly in love with Melissa. Their romance lasts for quite some time while Travis has hook-ups but nothing vaguely romantic. Stephen and Melissa’s rather quick and confusing break-up is probably the only reason I have for not making this an A grade review.
Stephen and Travis can’t wait to start the exciting part of their lives when they move in together in Boston where they both have entry level jobs. Travis works in the financial district and Stephen in advertising and design.
The novel is divided episodically by years. I found this slightly jolting but usually because I didn’t want the part I was reading to end. Of the two main characters, I loved quiet, gentle Stephen the best. Travis is introduced as a rather brash, overconfident and slightly insensitive young man, so the author tends to syphon emotions to the reader via Stephen and an important character, Gabe, whom we meet later in the book.
I loved the elegant use of metaphoric descriptions and narrative. The author utilises surroundings, the weather, even restaurant design and bars to convey emotion and heighten expectation. Here is the opening of a chapter entitled, Moving Out and Moving On that I think illustrates what I mean…
Another year passed, and with it went all the quotidian events that mark the cadence of time. The frigid winter finally gave way to a wet spring. Boston expelled a deep sigh of relief as the cold Artic winds turned to warm spring breezes…
As I mentioned at the start, there is a story of domestic abuse in this novel. It is an important part but not the main story. There are no explicit sex scenes, but the relationships, interactions and dialogue are so beautifully written I didn’t realise until the end, and I didn’t miss them. The sexual tension is there, the love is there, the blossoming of a relationship is there – everything else is off page, which makes the physicality of the domestic abuse scenes so vivid and disturbing. However, do not let this put you off a wonderful book; this subject needs to be brought into the light. The violence is in the writing and is never gratuitous. Violence in relationships can affect anyone, as A Careful Heart compellingly proves.
There is an HEA, and an HFN and I highly recommend this novel. I loved the writing and the romance so much that I am going to read this author’s back catalogue.
I'm an English romantic, and an author who simply adores reading and writing books. I believe that all love has equal status, and all humans need and deserve romance. So, I am thrilled to be able to review LGBTQ+ novels for AAR and introduce more readers to some gorgeous LGBTQ+ romances and fascinating stories.