Desert Isle Keeper
Luke, book three in Con Riley’s Learning to Love series, is a beautiful and powerful second-chance, friends-to-lovers story full of the exactly the sort of emotional soul-searching and insight I’ve come to expect and enjoy from this author. As in the other books in the series, the glorious Cornish settings are vividly described and the characters are complex, flawed, likeable and easy to root for.
Luke Lawson, headmaster of Glynn Harber school in Cornwall, is drowning in problems – or rather, one single, massive problem. Ever since the school was taken over by the Supernus Group, there has been constant pressure on him to cut costs, and no matter that he’s already pared expenditure down to the bone, there’s just no way he can keep the school going in its present state if even more funding is cut. We know from the previous books that the school is a labour of love for Luke, and he’s passionately dedicated to Glynn Harber’s ethos of providing disadvantaged children with a safe space in which to learn and grow. The constant pressure to prioritise balancing the books over the learning and wellbeing of the children in his care is a heavy burden however, and one he’s shouldering almost entirely alone – but he’s determined to fight to keep the school open until the bitter end. And right now, that end is looking closer than ever.
Like, Hugo (see Charles) Nathan Ridd has spent a number of years working for aid organisations in some of the most dangerous places in the world. He was with Hugo when Hugo was injured in a shelling attack in Syria, and continues to come and go, returning to England for brief periods and then returning to continue his work overseas. Luke, Hugo and Nathan have been best friends since their university days, and there are strong hints in the previous books that Luke and Nathan were probably more than friends at one point, and even though we’ve seen very little of Nathan so far, the chemistry between him and Luke has been intense. Despite a youthful relationship that didn’t work out, it’s very clear that neither man has ever been able to get the other out of his system, and we discover that over the years, whenever Nathan has been back in England, they’ve been hooking up on the quiet. But Luke has always wanted more than that from Nathan, and has decided it’s time he stopped hurting himself by hoping for more from someone who so clearly doesn’t want it. Nathan is coming to Glynn Harber to give a career talk, and Luke will tell him he can’t handle casual any more and wants to go back to being friends… without the benefits.
But the Nathan who returns to Glynn Harber is… different. Quieter. Tired. Slower. And ready to stay. After so many years of loving Nathan and being left by him, can Luke trust that Nathan means it when he tells him he’ll stick around for as long as Luke needs him? And what if that’s forever..?
Luke is full of heartfelt emotion and intense longing that leaps off the page as these two lonely, damaged men slowly find their way back to each other and find their places in each other’s lives. It’s a story of forgiveness, personal growth and learning to let go as they are finally honest with each other – and with themselves – about what they want and what’s been holding them back. They’ve both been shaped by years of unprocessed trauma, experiences that have caused them to build thick emotional walls, and that they have both transcended their upbringings to become such selfless and compassionate men is testament to their massive resilience and inner strength.
Based on what we’ve learned of him prior to this, it would be easy to think of Nathan as a bit selfish and oblivious, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s not like that at all and that he’s serious about making things right with Luke. And Luke, who has seemed rather severe and stoic is, beneath it all, a warm, generous, big-hearted man who is utterly devoted to guiding the young people in his care towards becoming the best they can possibly be.
I really liked the way the author slowly drip-feeds the important information about Luke and Nathan’s history together through the novel, each flashback or recollection coming at exactly the right time. Their honesty and willingness to communicate their wants and needs is something that has stayed with me; it’s not easy for either of them but they know they need to do it if they’re going to break free of the unhealthy patterns they’ve fallen into, and I absolutely loved that Luke, who is such a staunch advocate of good communication for his pupils and believes passionately that they should be able to speak their truths, is prepared to put his money where his mouth is and apply the same principles to himself. The journey the on which the author takes Luke and Nathan – and the reader – is one filled with self-doubt and vulnerability, with friendship and compassion, as they learn it’s safe to let go of the past and that they’re finally on the same page at the same time and in the right emotional space to begin to make a life together.
The school community is an important part of this story, and I found myself wishing so hard that Glynn Harber was real, that every child could have the opportunity to go to a school like this where they’re allowed and helped to heal as well as to learn. The educational system here is so focused on exam success that the acutal kids are often forgotten in the rush to climb the league tables – but that’s a diatribe for another day. I can’t leave the subject, however, without saying how hard I grinned at the name of the bad guy in the story; take out one letter and it’s the name of probably the worst Education Secretary in living memory. I don’t know if that was deliberate or not, but nice one, Ms. Riley ;)
Passionate, moving and tender, Luke and Nathan’s story will make you smile, make you tear up and tug at the heartstrings in the best way. Luke joins Charles on my keeper shelf, and is highly recommended.