Real Men Will
Ms. Dahl’s final book in her Donovan Brothers Brewery series tells the story of Eric, the eldest and least at ease of the Donovan siblings. He, like his brother and sister, has to learn to be his true self in order to find love and happiness. In Real Men Will, as in the other novels in the series, honesty is hands down the best policy.
Eric has spent his entire adult life being responsible for his siblings and the family business. (The Donovan parents died in a car crash when Eric was 24.) Eric’s life — in nice contrast to his brother Jamie’s — is all work and no play. So, when sexy Beth Cantrell mistakes Eric for playboy Jamie at a business convention, Eric doesn’t correct her. In fact, he has an outrageously wild one night stand with her (described in Ms. Dahl’s novella Just One Taste) and leaves her without telling her who he really is.
Months later, Beth shows up at the Brewery and discovers Eric’s lie. She is fabulously furious with him. And she’s not the only one. Jamie, with whom Eric already has an extremely strained relationship, is outraged to learn the goody-two shoes brother who always lectures him about propriety and responsibility appropriated Jamie’s name and sex-god reputation in order to get laid. Eric’s life is instantly a mess and that, of course, turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.
I’ve enjoyed the Donovan Brothers Brewery series. Real Men Will does a nice job of both telling Eric’s story and resolving the family conflicts that have been at the core of all three books. In the first two books, Eric came across as a tightly wound perfectionist who values the success of the Brewery more than he does the success of his relationships with others. In Real Men Will, Ms. Dahl explores why Eric is so demanding and how he might change. The answer to the latter is: With great difficulty.
Like Eric, Beth is living a life that doesn’t really allow her to be herself. She’s the manager of the White Orchid, an erotic boutique. Everyone expects Beth to be a sensual gladiator rather than the fairly sexually mainstream woman she is. Furthermore, she’s kept her occupation hidden from her conservative father whom she feels wouldn’t love her if he knew what she really did. She knows she has to unfetter herself from other people’s limiting expectations, but, damn, it’s hard to do.
Eric and Beth need each other. Neither has been able to forget their initial wild encounter, so after Eric has apologized to her for misleading her, the two begin a commitment-free, secret relationship. Ms. Dahl is one of the best writers out there when it comes to sex; the love scenes between Eric and Beth are passionate and intelligently detailed. The pair both burn up the sheets and are wonderfully sweet — afterwards – in bed together. As they begin to seek more from the relationship, they also begin to ask more of themselves. It’s lovely to see these two guarded adults open themselves up to the possibilities and the pain that come with personal change.
And there is pain. One of the very best things about this series has been the complex and angry relationship between Jamie and Eric. This is not one of those sibling relationships where the fights are superficial and the underlying relationship actually strong. Eric and Jamie have spent years resenting each other and, in profound ways, limiting the life the other can have. Their path to a good relationship is not an easy one and Ms. Dahl doesn’t trivialize the hurt they cause one another.
Ms. Dahl gives all of her characters their nuanced due in this book. (The exception to this is the villainous airline-owning family in which all three family members are flat-out scum.) Whether depicting the love life of the bisexual brew master Wallace or the cultural norms that shape the expectations of Beth’s straight-laced parents, Ms. Dahl relies on talent rather than cliché. The book is tolerant without being pedantically politically correct. In Ms. Dahl’s Boulder, where the books are set, “live and let live” is a way of life rather than a slogan.
Real Men Will is a strong ending to a strong series. It’s a good book in and of itself and a nearly great book as a conclusion to the three. My advice is this: Read them all. I honestly think you’ll be glad you did.