Digging Deep is the first book I’ve read by New Zealander Jay Hogan, and I have to say I was pretty impressed. In it, the author takes a long, hard look at how living with a chronic illness impacts on every single aspect of life for the person who has it and those around them, while at the same time developing a tender, sensual love story between two men who have a lot to learn about how to maintain a relationship under difficult and often debilitating circumstances. Jay Hogan has clearly done her research when it comes to the disease itself (she acknowledges the input she received from many of those living with Crohn’s disease), and although there are times when the text gets a little bit info-dumpy, it never overwhelms the story or romance, and she injects a lot of humour into the tale while never belittling the disease or those who live with it.
Duck-Young Park (father, Korean, mother, Irish/Fijian) – who prefers to be called Drake – is a midwife who works in private practice in Whangarei in the Northland of NZ, alongside two close friends. He loves his job and is very good at it; he has a great relationship with his colleagues and has a couple of clients he counts as friends, but other than them, his best friend, and his family – with whom he’s really close – he lives a fairly lonely life. After his last relationship crashed and burned – his boyfriend of two years bailed when Drake had a fairly serious Crohn’s flare-up – he’s been cautious about getting involved again and has come to the conclusion that romance is not for him. Staying healthy and the pressure that puts on him is hard enough; the last thing he needs is another broken heart over a guy who won’t stick around when the going gets tough.
Police officer Caleb Ashton makes no secret of the fact that he’s not interested in relationships. He flits from casual fling to hook-up and back again, and likes it that way; he’s not boyfriend material anyway – he’s too selfish for that – and he’s content with the way things are. His best friend is the glorious drag-queen, Carmen Bendover (otherwise known as Daniel when not in drag), he gets along really well with his work-partner, Leanne, and okay, so he’s not seen much of his family for the last couple of years, but that’s down to him… and he knows he really must make an effort. He just hasn’t got round to it.
Life is about to change for both Drake and Caleb when Drake is attending a local demonstration and – to cut a long story short – Caleb ends up arresting him. Sparks fly, but when Caleb attempts to ask Drake out for coffee, Drake shuts him down in no uncertain terms and thinks that’s that. No matter how hot the guy is – very – or how tempted Drake is – quite a bit – there’s something about the officer that warns him to steer clear. But that proves to be more difficult than Drake had anticipated, as Caleb embarks upon a campaign of serious wooing that’s as much a surprise to Caleb as it is to Drake. Caleb is irresistibly drawn to the gorgeous, prickly midwife, and his persistence is endearing (and not at all creepy); the gifts he sends are thoughtful and clearly show that he’s making an effort to learn more about Drake’s condition, and after a few weeks, Drake admits that he can’t pretend to be indifferent any longer. He’s been attracted to Caleb from the first, but was – and still is – very wary about getting involved with someone new, especially someone with no track record when it comes to relationships. But if Caleb is willing to try – and he clearly is – then maybe Drake can afford to open up and let him into his life… just a little bit.
Drake and Caleb are complex, well-rounded characters and I liked them both, even when they weren’t always that likeable. Drake is brusque and snarky and tough, a real survivor, and both men have been used to being selfish in their own ways; Caleb, because he’s used to just looking out for himself, and Drake because he has to put himself and his health before everything else. But what they both have to realise is that when you love someone, you love all of them, even those parts you don’t like very much. Caleb’s journey from self-professed manwhore to loving partner is really well done; he makes a huge effort to learn about Drake’s condition and is determined to prove to Drake that he’s not going to be like his ex, and run when things get difficult. That said, I really appreciated that Caleb doesn’t immediately turn into Mr. Perfect; he really wants to be there for Drake, but can’t help worrying if maybe it will all get too much for him, and his doubts seemed perfectly realistic and made him seem that much more human. The author depicts Drake’s way of living with the disease very well also; he has to live a very regimented life, to be careful about what he eats and drinks, keep as fit as possible, keep his stress levels as low as possible, and he also has his coping mechanisms for when the condition flares up. But while he admits to a degree of selfishness – and I’m not necessarily criticising that; after all, he knows the disease better than anyone around him – he fails to see that he is, to an extent, allowing it to run his life.
Digging Deep is very much a character driven story, with the bulk of the conflict arising from Drake’s tendency to keep people at a distance, but there are a couple of dramatic moments that propel the story in the second half of the book. It’s hard to say much without spoilers, so I’ll just say that one of them is a tragedy specifically related to Drake’s profession that hits him really hard, and the other relates to Caleb and his job. While the first of these felt organic to the story, the second seemed a little contrived, and is one of the reasons I haven’t awarded the novel DIK status. Drake and Caleb already had so much on their plate that I felt it was over-egging the pudding.
There were also a few places where things got a teeny bit repetitive, but otherwise, this was a great read. In spite of the limitations placed on Drake’s sex life, there’s plenty of steam in this novel, and plenty of swoon worthy moments, too, such as the ugly-ass bouquet (you’ll see what I mean when you read it), or all those times when Caleb refuses to give up on Drake or when Drake finally realises that he doesn’t want to keep pushing Caleb away. I loved that Caleb wasn’t afraid to call Drake on his crap (pun unintended!) and how he embraced everything that came with loving Drake and was ready with the humour in a way that was just perfect for him.
There’s a terrific cast of secondary characters – Carmen and Drake’s mum are a hoot! – and while there are a lot of medical details in the book, they’re important in order for readers to understand the characters’ journey and the what they may face in the future. Digging Deep is a terrific mixture of funny and romantic, thoughtful and serious, and I give serious props to the author for bringing this story to life in such an insightful and engaging manner.
Note: This book contains detailed descriptions of childbirth which may be upsetting to readers who have had difficult labours and/or miscarriages.