Earlier this year, I reviewed Sarina Bowen’s Roommate, which was the starting point for the new multi-authored True North World series, which comprises four mini-series of books set within the world created by Ms. Bowen in her True North stories. The Vino and Veritas novels are LGBTQ+ romances – mostly m/m but there are a few f/f romances, too – that revolve around the Vino and Veritas wine bar (the “Vino”) and bookshop (the “Veritas”) in the small Vermont town of Burlington.
Heartscape is – and I mean this in a good way – typical Garrett Leigh; a heartfelt, emotionally charged story featuring two damaged, lost souls just trying to get by and navigate their way through life following traumatic experiences they haven’t properly dealt with. Their romance is beautifully developed and tugs at the heartstrings in the very best way
Tanner Reid is not, perhaps, the most obvious choice to run a wine bar. Never too far from a downward spiral, he’s a bit grumpy, a lot broody and knows next to nothing about wine, but somehow, none of that matters, and he’s making it work. It’s clear that he’s struggling with something that happened in his past, but it’s quite a while before that’s revealed to the reader; Tanner’s friends don’t push him to talk about it (because they don’t want to send him back to whatever dark place he’d found himself in a year earlier), and he avoids thinking about it – and that suits him just fine.
When a fire burns down the hostel across the street – fortunately there are no fatalities – Tanner is asked by his brother’s girlfriend if he can put up a friend of hers for the night. Although she met Jax at university in England, he’s been living in the US for a number of years now and has recently moved from California to Vermont to work as a wildlife videographer. Fortunately, most of his equipment was at the office of Wildfoot Adventures when the fire broke out, but he lost all his clothes and right now, doesn’t have the money to pay for somewhere else to stay. Tanner agrees to let Jax sleep on his couch for the night – and the next day, says he might as well stay for a bit longer; he won’t be in the way given that Tanner works in the bar until the early hours most days and Jax has to be up and out early.
Days turn into weeks, and a genuine friendship develops between the two men, a soul-deep connection that, completely unexpectedly, gives both of them a sense of peace, safety and comfort, something they’ve long needed but almost given up on finding for themselves. Both have suffered intense trauma – physical and emotional – that they find difficult to talk about, and I admit that sometimes the lack of open communication between them was a little frustrating, especially as Tanner’s continued avoidance of talking or even thinking too much about what happened to him is damaging in itself and has the potential to screw him up even further. But conversely, I really liked that they were so patient with each other, and allowed one another the space to unpack their baggage and begin to heal.
Tanner and Jax are complex, fully-rounded characters whose grumpy/sunshine characteristics complement one another perfectly. Tanner is a bit of a grouch and doesn’t find it easy to be around people, while Jax is more sociable and seems a bit more ‘together’ – but underneath, he’s working hard to rediscover his self-confidence following a relationship gone seriously wrong. I loved the way their romance grows so naturally out of their friendship, and the way the secondary plotline – which focuses on Jax’s work along the various wilderness trails in the mountains – is so skilfully woven into the main narrative.
There’s a great secondary cast, including Tanner’s brother Gabriel, and his sort-of-but-not girlfriend Eve (I’m not sure if they might feature in another book in the series – they certainly deserve a story of their own!), bartender Molly, and Jax’s boss Jerry, who all have important parts to play in the story.
The pacing is fairly leisurely, but it never feels too slow. The early interactions between Tanner and Jax are so awkward and sweet and lovely, and the romantic tension between them so palpable that I just couldn’t get enough of it. And once they give in to the attraction that’s been thrumming between them since the start and become a couple, that sense of the comfort and safety they find in one another is amplified and the foundations of their love have burrowed so deep that by the end of the book, there’s no question that these two are absolutely solid and in it for the long haul. I don’t always get that feeling at the end of every romance I read – sometimes I reach the HEA and wonder if the couple will still be together in five years – not so with Tanner and Jax.
Heartscape is a quiet book, the sort of book that creeps up on you and hits you in the feels when you least expect it, but does it in such a balanced, nuanced way that you’re smiling through the hurt. It’s a wonderful combination of dark and light, deep emotion and unexpected humour, tenderness, hope and compassion that will leave you sighing with satisfaction.