Kelly Jensen continues her This Time Forever series about couples in their forties finding love and happiness with Renewing Forever, a beautifully written, reflective and somewhat wistful story about childhood friends whose lives went in very different directions, and who must work out if the forever they’d envisaged three decades earlier might now be possible.
We first met Franklin – Frank – Tarn in Building Forever, book one in the series, as the best friend of Simon Lynley, one of the principals in that story. Frank, a lifestyle journalist, came across as garrulous and flirtatious, a bit of a party animal who’s always up for a good time and is happy with his busy life and frequently itinerant lifestyle. In Renewing Forever, we see other sides to him as he starts to come to terms with the fact that he’s ready for his life to take a new direction and to finally put down some roots.
When Frank was a boy, he and his best friend, Tommy Benjamin (Benjamin and Franklin – heh) planned to travel the world together. Although they came from very different backgrounds – Frank’s family was well-off, and he grew up in a secure environment, with both parents, a doting uncle and siblings while Tommy’s mother was a single parent who struggled with addiction and often neglected him – the boys forged a strong bond of friendship which seems, as they approach manhood, to be turning into more. Tommy, however, can’t bear the idea of losing Frank as a friend, and tells him that’s what how he wants them to stay; no matter that there’s a definite attraction between them, neither of them is to do anything to change what they have. And that’s fine until one night, when they’re both seventeen, Frank kisses Tommy, and gets a punch in the face as a result. Frank leaves town after that, and doesn’t look back, returning as infrequently as possible.
He wouldn’t be going back there now were it not for the fact that his uncle Robert has recently died and left his business – The Bossen Hill Family Resort – in the Pocono Mountains to him and his sister in his will. Frank doesn’t want or need it, but has agreed to meet Annabelle there to decide what they’re going to do with the place.
Frank arrives – after a crappy journey – to find that the lodge is terribly run down. The smell of dampness lingers in the air, the furnishings are worn, the grounds are a mess… once a thriving business, it’s dilapidated and unkempt – and Frank is appalled to see the place in such a state. In another surprise, Frank also finds his old friend and first love Tommy Benjamin there; he hadn’t known that Tom had been helping Robert manage the resort for years… and wasn’t prepared for all the old feelings that seeing Tom again churns up inside him.
It’s clear from the start that both men still care for each other a great deal, but they’re at such different places in their lives that it’s sometimes difficult to see how they will ever be able to work things out and find a way to be together on terms that work for both of them. The social gulf that existed between them when they were younger is even more pronounced now; Frank is successful and comfortably-off, while Tom has never left his home town and his financial situation is now more precarious than ever. He’s a loving, caring man whose life has never been easy and who is doing the best he can for his sick mother, in spite of the way she treated him when he was younger. But she’s his mother – what else can he do but look after her? And Tom is also – naturally and realistically – very prickly about his situation, not wanting Frank to feel obligated or to see just how dispirited and simply dragged down by life he has become, and goes to some lengths in the attempt to conceal the truth – which, of course, is a recipe for disaster, especially when it causes Frank to doubt Tom’s reasons for getting close to him again.
Ms. Jensen develops the friendship between young Frankie and Tommy extremely well through a series of short flashbacks to various points in their lives, culminating in the kiss that sent Frank running. Readers get a strong sense of what these two meant to each other back then, and she does an equally good job of showing them working through the things that divide them; of Frank’s growing self-awareness that he’s not been as wise to Tom’s difficulties as he should have been, and Tom’s realisation that it’s not weakness to accept help from the man he loves. Their renewed relationship is well-developed and easy to buy into although I wasn’t completely convinced by the reasons given for their parting or by the fact that their teenaged love lasted for thirty years. Still, those are niggles rather than full-blown flaws in the storytelling.
Renewing Forever is a quiet story which is pervaded by an almost palpable sense of melancholy. Frank’s dissatisfaction with the direction his career and life is taking him, Tom’s struggles financially and personally, his mother’s decline into old age and infirmity – all are paralleled by the disrepair into which the lodge has fallen, and the struggles faced by Frank and Tom both personally and in terms of how they can possibly turn things around – if they even want to – feel real and are incredibly well written. This is a sad book in many ways, but it’s not all doom and gloom; the author builds this story of renewal – of place, home, lives and love – beautifully, giving readers small glimpses of victory like shafts of sunlight in a dark room as Frank and Tommy gradually realise that their visions of the future coalesce and that they want to make it a reality together.