Con Riley has become a must-read author for me over the last couple of years, and she earned high grades for her last three books, which I gave DIK reviews. The most recent of these – Charles, book one in the Learning to Love series – was always going to be a tough act to follow due to its incredibly loveable and engaging titular character, but I had high hopes that book two, Sol, would wow me, too. I’m a fan of second-chance romances, and have been looking forward to learning more about Solomon Trebeck, the quiet, reserved art teacher at Glynn Harber school. However, I can’t say that I loved the book as much as I’d hoped to. It’s a poignant and beautifully written story about a man struggling under the weight of commitments, trying to sort his life out, and to allow himself not just to learn to love (as per the series title) but to accept it – but the insta-love nature of the romance didn’t really work for me.
A couple of years before the story begins, Sol had to take custody of his teenaged nephew, Cameron, who was brought up by his grandmother – Sol’s mother Mary- owing to the fact that his own mother is unable to take care of him. When Mary Trebeck died unexpectedly, Sol had not only to deal with his own grief at her loss, but to take on the responsibility for his grieving nephew, too. To start with, Sol moved Cameron into his home in London, but when he realised that uprooting the boy from the life he’d known in Cornwall had been a mistake, he took a job teaching art at Glynn Harber school. Teaching is not a job he’d ever wanted to do, but his position there at least provides him with somewhere to live and means Cameron’s schooling is paid for. But as much as he loves Cameron and wants to do the best for him, their relationship is going from bad to worse, and Sol is at a loss as how to repair it.
As was hinted at in the previous book, all is not well at Glynn Harber. The finances are strapped and there’s the strong possibility that the head will have to take the drastic step of dispensing with the free places and scholarships the school offers if he’s going to balance the books. It’s not something he wants to do at all; those free places go to kids who really need the kind of security and nurturing environment the school specialises in, kids who were “given up on before they got here” – and he believes, passionately and wholeheartedly, in continuing to give those children what they need to succeed. But unless he can come up with a way of bringing in more money, those places will have to be cut and the whole school may eventually be forced to close. He suggests to the staff that they all try to find a benefactor with money to invest, or talented people willing to be associated with the school whose names might help drum up more fee-paying parents.
Sol finds himself thinking, not for the first time since he returned to Cornwall, of Jace Pascoe, the object of his first ever same-sex crush and the boy whose kisses had revealed a truth about himself that Sol hadn’t known before – that he liked guys as well as girls. He and Jace haven’t seen each other since the night they kissed fifteen years before; Sol promised he’d return later that evening, but instead found himself whisked away to live in London by his father without a moment to spare and with no money to even make a phone call. But Jace’s mother Emily was a well-known artist and her paintings sell for massive amounts of money – could Jace be persuaded to help save the school? Sol can’t believe he’s even considering asking, or that Jace will listen, given they haven’t seen or spoken for fifteen years, but he’s willing to try anything if it means keeping Glynn Harber open and providing much-needed stability for Cameron in a place that makes him happy.
Sol and Jace’s reunion is as awkward as you might expect, but it doesn’t take too long for them to become comfortable around each other again. They have great chemistry and it’s very clear that the feelings that were developing between them as teens have never gone away, but things move so fast in the present that it feels like a strong dose of insta-love rather than a second-chance romance in which the couple spends time learning about the people they are now – and it didn’t really work for me. I find it difficult to accept that two people who haven’t been in contact for fifteen years could just pick up where they left off – and being so young the last time they saw each other makes it an even harder sell because we change and grow so much in the years between fifteen and thirty.
That, though, is my major gripe about a book I otherwise enjoyed a lot. Sol is the story’s sole narrator, so we see everything through his eyes, but all the characters are superbly drawn and their motivations are clear. Sol is a complicated character with a lot on his plate – family tragedy and loss, a nephew he can’t connect with, a job he doesn’t really want but needs, the possibility of losing it – and Ms. Riley does a great job of conveying how utterly overwhelmed he is by it all. He’s easy to sympathise with but difficult to like sometimes – his passive-aggressiveness towards Jace doesn’t paint him in the best light, and the almost continual sense that he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop can be exhausting – and yet I could understand where he was coming from, and I appreciated the way we’re shown him coming to realise the difference between being responsible for someone and genuinely caring for them. Unlike Sol, Jace is outgoing and sociable; he’s also kind, insightful and completely upfront with Sol about how he feels – which I found very refreshing – and it’s he who finds a way for Sol to begin to reconnect with Cameron (who has started to go off the rails a bit). In fact, one of the real highlights of the book is watching Cameron’s slow transformation from surly, resentful teen to a caring, determined and passionate young man. But Jace seems to have no flaws and comes across as too good to be true at times. Still, there’s no doubt that he and Sol feel for each other very deeply and are good for one another, and although this may seem an odd thing to say, while the romance didn’t work all that well for me, the relationship did.
Con Riley excels at crafting quiet stories full of genuine emotion, featuring ordinary, relatable characters with ordinary, relatable problems, and those things are much in evidence here. Sol’s journey towards learning to accept himself and that he’s worthy of love is very well done, and it, together with the lyrical but understated prose, the beautifully realised setting and the wonderful sense of community the author has created around Glynn Harber earns Sol a recommendation.