I’ve often heard/read authors say - ‘this character just took over my brain and demanded their own book’. I don’t know if that’s what happened to Con Riley when she created Charles Heppel, a major secondary character in His Haven, but whatever the case, he’s one of those characters. Vibrant, funny, larger-than-life and a complete scene-stealer, Charles lit up the pages whenever he appeared, and I was delighted when I learned he would be getting his own book.
Charles is book one in the Learning to Love series, and it’s a gorgeously romantic, sexy and poignant story about two quite different men learning not just to love, but about themselves, who they truly are and what they truly want. The writing is superb, the setting is expertly rendered and the characterisation is excellent; I honestly can’t think of anything about this book that I didn’t love or that didn’t work for me.
Readers of His Haven will already know that Charles has a somewhat uneasy relationship with his older brother George – heir to their father’s earldom - and that he goes home to the family estate, as infrequently as possible. When this book opens, Charles is trying to sneak out without George knowing; he’s got a job interview and isn’t in the mood to listen to George criticising (again) his choice of profession (Charles works with pre-schoolers, helping them learn through play) and his lack of success in finding or holding down a permanent position. Alas for Charles, he can’t get away that easily. George catches him and isn’t pleased; he wanted Charles to stay to help him out with the various projects he’s got going on, but Charles knows he’ll only screw up, and that would make things between them even worse.
Glynn Harber is a small, independent school close to The Haven in Cornwall and although the job is another temporary position, Charles likes the place immediately. Unfortunately, the interview doesn’t go well leaving Charles once again feeling like a total failure who is just Not Good Enough.
Heartsick and defeated, Charles decides to go for a walk, taking shelter in the chapel in the woods when it starts to rain. The quiet soothes him a bit, and he sits behind the curtain of the ‘confessional’, allowing himself a few moments of honesty to feel his disappointment. Then he hears someone sit down on the other side of the curtain, and assuming it’s Keir (his best friend) come to pick him up, decides to have a bit of fun and starts to confess his sins, in a typically self-deprecating way:
“Father, first I need to confess about all of the sex I’ve had before marriage… It’s a lot, and we probably don’t have time for a complete run-through but would you pass on my thanks for making me both gay and a magnet to men? Especially to the ones I like best – allergic to commitment like me? It’s made being a man-whore so much easier.”
But can’t keep up the act in front of his oldest friend:
“… it keeps getting harder to do this. I get to know the children, and learn all their maggoty ways. Then I have to leave them. I never, ever get to see any of them flourish. Grow their little wings and take off.”
Of course, it’s not Keir on the other side of the curtain at all – it’s His Holy Hotness, aka Hugo Eavis (whom we also met briefly in His Haven), formerly an army padre who is temporarily in charge of pastoral support at the school. He immediately puts Charles at his ease by sharing something about himself, explaining that he “stepped off the ordination track” a year earlier and decided to take a sabbatical overseas which didn’t end well. He was injured in a shelling attack in Syria, and now he’s at one of life’s crossroads. He’s returned home to rest and recover from his injuries and to work out what he’s called to do next.
While they’re talking, they’re told about a missing child and immediately rush to help. All ends well when Charles finds him, and the combination of Charles’ obvious affinity with young children and the way he’s making Hugo smile for the first time in ages, makes the headmaster of the school extend an olive branch and an offer. He asks Charles to stay to help the very pregnant class teacher until he can find a suitably qualified replacement – but most importantly, Hugo is a dear friend he’d like to see happier… and he thinks Charles is the man for the job.
Charles is, as I said at the beginning, one of those characters who just leaps off the page. He has a huge heart and an equally huge capacity for joy, love and compassion; his dedication to the children in his care is inspiring and it’s clear that not only does he love his job but he has a deeply insightful understanding of the way children develop and how important play is in that development. And yet, owing to severe but undiagnosed dyslexia and low working memory, Charles has been made to feel like a failure his entire life and believes himself to be “shallow as a puddle”, good for little other than a good laugh and a good fuck. Yet he’s so intensely loveable, a deeply good, kind person (to everyone but himself, that is), and his inability to see that his value is beyond price is heart-breaking.
There is so much to love and enjoy about Hugo and Charles’ romance. It’s funny, it’s touching and real and insightful; Hugo is Charles’ opposite in many ways, yet they just click; his unconditional understanding and ability to listen to what isn’t said as much as what is encourages Charles to open up about things he’s never spoken of, not even to Keir, and Hugo’s unwavering belief in Charles, in his ability to change lives for the better – including Hugo’s – and to see him and celebrate him for the man he is give Charles something he so desperately needs, especially at those moments of almost crushing self-doubt. And in return, Hugo flourishes under Charles’ care and support, learning to smile and enjoy life again even as he is trying to understand the true nature of his spiritual calling and to work out what he wants to do with his life.
The secondary characters are wonderfully drawn, especially a little boy named Tor with whom Charles develops a special bond, and George. I adored the relationship between the brothers, and how Charles comes to a new appreciation of what George has been dealing with. It’s clear that George loves Charles dearly, even though sometimes he’s a bit tactless, and Charles realises that he’s been struggling and determines to be a better brother.
It’s not unusual for me to find myself tearing up or with a lump in my throat while reading an emotional story, but something about this particular story really got to me – tugged at my heartstrings, hit me in the feels, however you want to describe it – and I cried tears of happiness and heartbreak through the last quarter of the book! Charles gradually coming to see himself the way Hugo sees him and really, truly beginning to believe in himself is unforgettable and just marvellously written, as is the moment where he fears he’s been mistaken and he’s Not Enough after all.
I feel as though I’ve barely scraped the surface of Charles: Learning to Love, because there’s so much more to it than I’ve had space to talk about here. Charles himself is a truly memorable character, and watching him falling in love with possibly the most unlikely man makes for one of the most beautiful romances I’ve ever read. This book earns Con Riley another DIK and puts her firmly on my list of ‘must read’ authors.
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