Desert Isle Keeper
Between the Lines
I had mixed feelings about the New Milton book that precedes this one, Perfect Day, Ms. Malcolm’s take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I liked it, but not as much as our reviewer did. So it’s a bit ironic that reading Between the Lines, its loosely-linked follow-up, provided me with a perfect day. Strong writing, an engaging story, and superbly rendered principal characters kept me engrossed from the first page to the last and I read the whole thing over the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon. The past looms large in Between the Lines – two men, opposites (and adversaries), forge an intense bond after a ‘fling,’ that’s anything but. Intimate, tender and deeply moving, Between the Lines is further proof Sally Malcolm belongs on your auto-buy list.
When Theo Wishart arrives in New Milton (the same town featured in Perfect Day), he’s out to prove to his father he has what it takes to follow in his footsteps despite a string of embarrassing missteps at the family business, Lux Properties. He has his eye on The Majestic, a grand seaside hotel that’s recently fallen on hard times, hoping to purchase it on the cheap and redevelop it into a destination golf resort for the wealthy. New Milton is an ideal vacation destination; the increased tourist traffic will also be a boon to the sleepy town. Theo is confidant Jude Moretti, the owner, is ready to sell – after all, The Majestic is barely staying afloat, and Theo is ready to buy – he only needs her to sign the papers and transfer ownership. After arriving early to New Milton, he’s killing time before heading to The Majestic to meet with Jude and her husband Don, when disaster strikes. Theo inadvertently collides with a man on the sidewalk, spilling coffee on his clean dress shirt. The ensuing confrontation is, as usual with Theo, a disaster.
Luca Moretti loves The Majestic and New Milton. He had a happy childhood raised in his family’s hotel – but when his mother remarried and her new husband made it abundantly clear he couldn’t accept Luca’s sexuality, he left. He’s spent the last decade as a nomad, flitting from place to place as the seasons change, never settling anywhere for too long and avoiding romantic attachments. He’s only returned to New Milton after learning of his mother’s plan to sell the hotel. Unwilling to take over The Majestic, he’s still hopeful – with the right words – he can convince her not to sell. He’s just arrived in New Milton when his visit gets off to a rough start – a handsome, arrogant (and totally overdressed) stranger, clearly a tourist, collides with him on the sidewalk and then tries to blame him for his spilled coffee. He suppresses his anger and heads to The Majestic, his sunny optimism tinged with a foreboding of worse things to come.
When Theo shows up to make his pitch for The Majestic, he’s met by Jude, Don and a glowering, suspicious and angry Luca. It’s obvious mother and son aren’t in agreement about selling the property, and Theo is doubtful he can close the deal… until Jude offers him a lifeline. What if Theo stays for two weeks and get to know the hotel and the town; Luca can show him around, and Jude can have a bit more time to consider his offer? It’s clear to Theo, despite his dyspraxia (a condition that makes it nearly impossible for him to read people), there’s something more to the conflict between mother and son and that Luca doesn’t like or trust him – or want to spend the next two weeks as his tour guide. But Theo needs to prove himself to his father, and he needs The Majestic. So he agrees to the deal.
Although neither man has high hopes for the next two weeks spent in each other’s company, it isn’t long before they form a tentative friendship. Theo is attracted to Luca, but isn’t sure if Luca feels the same, and he doesn’t trust his instincts. Luca is attracted to Theo, but can’t quite figure him out – it seems like Theo is interested in more than a friendship, but it’s hard to be sure. Only after Luca confronts him – and Theo finally confesses he has dyspraxia and how it affects him, do they admit they’d like to be more than friends. The pair agree to a short summer fling while Theo is staying at The Majestic, although it’s clear from both of their PoVs that their feelings are far from casual.
As Theo and Luca transition from enemies to loves, the narrative alternately charms readers with lovely vignettes of their developing intimacy, and frustrates, as they stubbornly keep a part of themselves separate, fearing rejection and afraid to trust how they feel. It’s an idyllic interlude from reality – they deliberately avoid discussing their impending separation, or their disparate dreams for The Majestic – and it’s a bittersweet pleasure watching them fall in love, knowing it can’t last. Theo and Lucas are appealing heroes, and although they seem to have little in common, the author does a masterful job establishing how well those differences complement each other.
Unfortunately, the things they have in common – fear drives their decision making, fractured parental relationships, trouble communicating – ultimately tears them apart. Watching Theo and Luca fall for each other is akin to watching a car crash in slow motion… you just know the crash is coming but you keep hoping it doesn’t. It does.
Much like in her other stories, Ms. Malcolm proves adept at showing the vulnerable and flawed facets of her principal (and secondary) characters. Luca and Theo are lovely and mostly good to each other, but they struggle. Past, unresolved hurts make it difficult for Luca to trust Theo, and he’s quick to lash out whenever he feels threatened; Theo wants a partner to love and shower with affection, but a painful past relationship has led him to doubt his appeal or his instincts – and his dyspraxia only exacerbates his insecurities. Both men have complex relationships with their parents (and step-parent), and although I think these secondary characters – and the problems they present – absolutely enhance this story and add nuance and complexity to it, they’re a largely unlikeable lot.
Between the Lines is an apt title for this beautiful love story. As the novel unfolds, Luca and Theo struggle to understand what they mean to each other when neither is brave enough to confess the truth. False starts, misunderstandings and past hurts conspire to keep them apart, until… well, you’ll have to see won’t you? Between the Lines drew me in from the first page to the last, and that super sweet epilogue (which I loved) left me sighing as I said goodbye. Great stuff.