Desert Isle Keeper
Thus far, Big Love is my favorite Rick R. Reed book. Why? Because Reed makes no false steps in this one. What he does is take a much-loved YA cliché and transform it into a thoughtful, moving three-story novel. He does it by adding two MORE romance clichés: the long-married, suppressed gay man and the betrayed gay man running away from a cheating lover. He places the three narratives into a perfect cliché of a setting, a small-town Midwestern high school; he adds a few plausible presumptions and gives us only the crucial characters we need to enact his three-part love story. It all works. At least it did for me, because the sum of the parts is much more than the individual stories would have been on their own.
Truman Reid is a sissy from the poor side of town. His young, single mother Patsy loves him fiercely and does as well by him as she can. Patsy is a secondary character, but she’s both important and wonderfully drawn. Of course Truman is bullied and beaten to the point of desperation.
Dane Bernard is a local native, long married with two adolescent kids. He has harbored his secret since attending the very high school where he now teaches English. The sudden, tragic death of his wife Katy leaves him shattered, but also aware that his life has changed irrevocably.
Seth Wolcott is the new teacher at the high school where Dane teaches and Truman is a student. Out and proud since his own teen years, he’s come to this small town from Chicago to escape the pain of finding his fiancé cheating on him.
There are not many ancillary characters in this play; just Dane’s kids Clarissa and Joey Barnard, and even his deceased wife Katy. A few of the students make crucial appearances at key moments to advance the story and make a point. To say more would spoil things. But Reed uses these minor players well.
At the center of this book’s success is Reed’s clean, realistic prose. Each character has his own voice, his own reality. The settings are vivid enough to bring you to the place, yet not so over-described as to distract you from the essential action, which is all about the heart and soul. I would love to have had the book be longer than it is, to allow for more time to develop Dane’s life as a single father, his growing relationship with Seth, and their shared mentoring of Truman. The novel’s overall timespan of something less than a year is not unreasonable, but I’d have liked more fleshing out of the emotional development of the three main characters. They don’t exactly feel rushed, but it does seem as if things are skipped over a little too quickly in several places that would have made the narrative richer and deeper.
Three stereotypical romance novel characters in an archetypal YA setting. It could have been so dull. But Reed makes his characters think and feel and bleed. Truman and Dane and Seth are three distinctly different kinds of gay men at different times in their lives; but they are all at moments of life-changing transition. Drawn together by a horrifying crisis, they talk to each other. They show compassion and love and wisdom. Their three stories become one larger story: a story of big love—love that embraces all and excludes no one.