Better Than People
I like dogs and cats, and I like shifter stories that center ‘pack’. Unfortunately, despite these things – and my fondness for this author’s work – I didn’t really like Better Than People. No, it isn’t a shifter story. But animals and pack are at its heart, and if you aren’t a big time dog or cat lover, this book is a tough sell. Jack, one-half of the principal couple, has A LOT of pets (four dogs; three cats) and refers to them as his pack. I was so fixated (and distracted) by these furry friends – and all their pet hair and smelly fur – I couldn’t enjoy the romance. It’s a shame; the opposites-attract love story is tender and lovely.
Jack Matheson is an acclaimed children’s book illustrator on hiatus since his best friend (and collaborator) stole a story from him and then sold it as his own. Depressed, stung by the betrayal, and newly plagued with doubts about his talent, he hides away in his Wyoming cabin with only his pack of rescued dogs and cats for company. Out for a walk late one evening, one of the dogs runs away. After a frantic chase in the dark, Jack finds himself alone at the bottom of a ditch, concussed and with a broken leg. Following a brief hospital stay, his older brother Charlie brings him home and gets him settled. Jack hates asking for help and resents needing it, and finally convinces a worried and doubtful Charlie he’s fine on his own. He quickly discovers that navigating crutches, exhaustion, and caring for a menagerie of animals is nearly impossible, and he turns to PetShare, an app that matches up pet owners with caregivers. Much to his surprise, someone quickly responds to his ad for help, and when he opens the door the following day, he’s caught off guard by the beautiful man waiting on his doorstep.
Simon Burke loves animals and prefers them to people. After struggling with debilitating shyness and anxiety since he was a young boy, he’s finally able to support himself working from home as a graphic designer. He tries to limit his interaction with clients to email only, and spends most of his time alone or with his newly widowed grandmother (whom he now lives with). Simon hoped to adopt a dog of his own, but his plans changed when his grandfather died. Spotting Jack’s ad on the PetShare app, he quickly responds, although actually knocking on the door and introducing himself proves much more difficult. When he finally forces himself to do it, he’s surprised by the handsome disheveled man who opens the door. Barely able to look him in the eye, Simon can’t get any words out and begins to panic. When he motions to the dogs, Jack follows his lead and quickly introduces them. Before Jack can ask Simon any questions, Simon grabs the dogs and leashes and sets out.
After this inauspicious meet-cute, Jack and Simon barely interact beyond a waved hello and goodbye whenever Simon comes over to walk the dogs. Jack, unhappy with his limited mobility and growing progressively grumpier with every day spent on the couch, can’t understand why Simon won’t speak to him and avoids eye contact whenever possible. Simon knows that Jack is frustrated by their lack of communication, and wishes things could be different… but they aren’t. He can’t get the words out to give voice to his struggles, and he doesn’t want Jack’s pity. Fortunately (for this story), Jack persists and Simon starts to ‘talk’ to him by texting.
This helps Jack and Simon get to know one another, and eventually Simon finds the strength to actually speak to Jack, too. Every conversation is a struggle… until it isn’t. Jack somehow intuits when Simon isn’t able to communicate with words, and his empathy, combined with the pack’s easy, eager acceptance of their new friend, gives Simon the confidence to share about his issues. What starts as a careful friendship soon gives way to a flirtation and eventually an affair. Despite the fact that most of Jack’s previous ‘relationships’ were little more than one-night stands, he knows he wants more from Simon, and Simon – who’s never had a romantic relationship before – is an eager and curious partner. The relationship quickly turns serious, and alone in their bubble with each other and their pack, both men begin to heal from the hurts of the past.
I loved the interaction between Jack and Simon and their intense affection and loyalty to each other almost from the moment they first meet. There’s a generosity and a kindness – an empathy for each other’s struggles – that unites them from that very first awkward porch meeting. And when they eventually become lovers, it’s another happy and passionate journey of discovery. Their shared happiness permeates the story, despite the daily struggle Simon faces every time he’s forced to face the world outside their bubble. Parrish carefully, painfully exposes Simon’s debilitating shyness and anxiety, and like Jack, we bear witness to their corrosive effects on his life. In Jack, he finds a champion in his darkest hour, and a protective confidant who doesn’t seek a quick and easy solution, but looks for ways to help his partner navigate and succeed even as he sometimes struggles. Meanwhile, Simon helps Jack let go of the past and unwittingly becomes the muse that reawakens Jack’s creative spark. The relationship is intense, tender and passionate.
So why didn’t I grade this lovely romance higher? Because I was constantly distracted from it, and there isn’t nearly enough of it. Instead, we spend lots of time with Jack and Simon’s furry found family. I found it strange (and sometimes just weird) how much page time is dedicated to these animals. I could maybe have forgiven it if Parrish had ever addressed the elephant in the room (a little animal humor for you): WHEN DOES JACK CLEAN UP ALL THAT PET HAIR?????!!!! No one vacuums or cleans, and they sleep and have sex on the same bed that the dogs and cats use for naps. Pet food is constantly getting spilled and dropped, and Jack uses his own towels to dry off the wet dogs… UGH! Look, I’m not the neatest person on earth, but all of it – plus the frequent smell of wet dog – just grossed me out. The pack is ever present in this story, and perhaps if I was a bigger animal lover it would have been silly and fun… but I’m just your basic animal lover and it was all too, too much. I would much rather have spent more time with our couple or Jack’s brother Charlie (please tell me he’s getting his own story, sans the menagerie) or Simon’s grandmother. Unfortunately, these charming secondary characters are mostly relegated to the sidelines, leaving readers wishing we could spend more time with them.
Better Than People feels tonally similar (and is loosely linked) to The Remaking of Corbin Wale, an earlier Parrish story featuring an artist with an affinity for animals. Big surprise – I wasn’t a fan of that story either. I can only recommend Better Than People to Parrish fans who passionately love animals; otherwise, it’s a rare misstep for this talented author.