Narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Stephen Dexter
Sarina Bowen’s The Understatement of the Year and the co-authored (with Elle Kennedy) Him/Us are some of my favourite m/m stories and go-to re-listens, so when I saw that Teddy Hamilton was on board for Roommate, the first book in a new series that takes place in the world of her True North novels, I was more than eager to listen to it. The series is set among the apple orchards and breweries of Vermont, and will feature some of the characters who’ve appeared in the True North books already, and others who are completely new, and it’s a big venture, comprised of four different mini-series.
Roommate is the starting point – and I’ll confess now that I haven’t read any of the other books, so I’ll likely have missed any of the recurring characters; but the good news is that I didn’t have any problems following the story, so you can jump in here, as I did, and not feel as though you’ve missed anything important!
The book opens as Roderick Waites pulls up outside his parents’ home in the small town of Colebury in Vermont. It’s been years since he’s been back there or seen his parents, who are ultra conservative and don’t approve of his ‘lifestyle’. But after breaking up with his boyfriend of three years – a country singer who was firmly in the closet and had no intention of coming out – Roddy has nowhere else to go. Hoping that perhaps his father will have relaxed his stance a little, and realising that he misses Vermont, Roderick goes home in the hopes he’ll be able to stay there until he can find a job and get himself back on his feet. But it’s a no-go. His father is as unbending and bigoted as ever, saying Roderick can stay – but only if he will go to church and ask God’s forgiveness for being gay. Which is not happening.
Roderick, who‘s been through culinary school and previously worked as a baker, starts looking for work, spending the nights uncomfortably – and perhaps dangerously – in his car. His search isn’t going well when he decides to indulge in a decent cup of coffee at the Busy Bean Café… and suddenly things start looking up. They’re looking to hire more staff (one of the co-owners is pregnant) and after chatting briefly, Roderick is asked to do a couple of days’ trial for them.
Kieran Shipley works two jobs – three, if you could the work he does around his family’s farm – one of which is at his cousin Audrey’s café. He’s run ragged; his brother Kyle doesn’t really pull his weight around the farm, even though it’s his full-time employment and he actually gets paid to work there, and Kieran is dissatisfied in his other job at a local design firm, sticking with it because it’s the only way he can utilise the artistic skills his father derides, and because he’s saving up until he’s got enough money to be able to afford to rent a place of his own. He loves his family, but they put a lot on his shoulders and take him for granted, and he wants and needs the space to be able to branch out on his own… and maybe he can finally start to explore his sexuality and start living life on his own terms.
Roderick is probably the only person who knows the secret Kieran has been keeping for years. When he enters the coffee shop, Kieran is immediately on edge, worried that Roderick is going to let something slip – but he doesn’t. He’s just chatty and charming and funny… and a fantastic baker. Dammit. Roderick is soon a permanent fixture in the kitchen, preparing a mouth-watering selection of baked goods for the café, and Kieran tries his best to have as little to do with him as possible.
But that changes when, on one really cold, miserable night, Kieran finds Roderick sleeping in his car. He makes a snap decision and offers the other man a room in the place he’s just rented. He needs a roommate anyway to help with the costs, so it might as well be someone he already knows. Roddy is surprised, as he’d thought Kieran didn’t like him, but he’s not going to turn the offer down, and over the ensuing weeks, the guys become friends, buying stuff for the house and hanging out together, and Roderick gives Kieran cooking lessons, the undercurrent of attraction running between them making for a delicious slow burn.
Kieran eventually confesses to Roderick that he’s attracted to men but has never been able to act on that attraction, and lets Roddy know that he’d like to be more than friends. And even though Roderick knows it’s a bad idea (he just spent three years in a relationship with a closeted guy and had vowed never to do it again), he can’t deny the temptation Kieran presents and decides to risk it. Soon they’re cooking up a storm (sorry – couldn’t resist it!) between the sheets – but it’s not long before the real world intrudes on the bubble of coupledom they’ve created behind closed doors… and they have to make some serious decisions about what they truly want.
Roderick and Kieran are complete opposites – shy, introspective Kieran a nice contrast to the outgoing, unfiltered (and “gay AF”) Roderick – but they’re likeable and well-drawn, and they have terrific chemistry. I especially liked that Kieran’s reluctance to come out wasn’t so much that he was afraid of people’s reactions as that he just didn’t think it was anyone’s business but his own. (There’s a deeper reason too, but – no spoilers!)
I had a couple of small quibbles with the story, but nothing major and I liked it overall. Some of the reviews I’ve seen have criticised the book for having too much angst and drama, but I disagree; the various story threads are all skilfully woven into the main love story, and none of it is overdone. Kieran’s relationship with his brother is a nice mix of brotherly love and irritation, and I enjoyed Roddy’s growing friendship with the local priest, who, unlike Roddy’s father, is a truly good, non-judgmental person.
Teddy Hamilton is an all-time favourite and has co-narrated most (actually, I think ALL) of Sarina Bowen’s previous m/m titles, so his name attached to this project made it a must listen. His pacing is just right, and his voice is easy on the ear, with just a touch of gravel at the lower end (which just adds to its sexiness!). His interpretation of Roderick is delightful, capturing all of his joie de vivre, his enthusiasm for good food and baking, his snarky humour and the big heart and vulnerability beneath it all. Stephen Dexter is new-to-me, and I had a few issues with his performance that have knocked down my overall grade. His portrayal of Kieran is good; Mr. Dexter’s voice is naturally low-pitched, and that works well to describe Kieran’s physicality, and his gruff timbre gives a definite ‘leave me alone’ vibe that fits the character as written. He picks up all the emotional cues, adeptly conveying Kieran’s confusion and frustration, as well as his genuine affection for Roderick. The main problem though, is when he reads Roderick’s dialogue, because he pitches it too high and from about the halfway point, starts making him sound really camp. Mr. Hamilton performs Roddy as flirtatious and playful… but not at all camp, and he pitches Roddy in his own, baritone range, not as a high tenor. It isn’t dreadful by any means (it’s not a squeaky falsetto or anything like that!), but it’s a noticeable difference, and I had to wonder why Mr. Dexter took that approach (and nobody queried it during the production process). Both narrators differentiate well between the secondary characters and perform the female roles well; there are a few pacing issues with Mr. Dexter’s performance (sometimes he doesn’t seem to pause at the end of sentences so they just run in to each other), but I can’t fault Mr. Hamilton in that area – or indeed, on anything! (I can’t help wishing he’d been paired with Christian Fox or Jacob Morgan again…)
When all’s said and done, Roommate is a fun, sexy listen that delivers a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting romance between two ordinary guys dealing with life’s ordinary problems. Teddy Hamilton is always worth listening to, and Stephen Dexter gets enough right for me to be happy to recommend it in audio format.
Breakdown of Grade: Narration – Teddy Hamilton: A; Stephen Dexter: B Story – B+
Running Time: 9 hours and 5 minutes
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer
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