Desert Isle Keeper
The Family We Make
Dan Wingreen’s The Family We Make is a charming, funny and incredibly touching contemporary romance featuring a single dad with a teenaged son and a guy who feels as though he’s lost his way in life. It’s well-written and sharply observed, with brilliantly drawn relationships, a teenager who speaks and acts like one and two complex, flawed and utterly endearing leads. I pretty much inhaled it, and even though there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me, I adored it and came away from it with a huge smile on my face.
At twenty-eight, teacher Spencer Kent has been a father for half his life. His son Connor – the result of a drunken more-than-fumble when he was just thirteen – is the centre of his universe; which is not to say that life is plain sailing and they don’t have their ‘moments’, especially now Connor is a teenager, but Spencer adores him and wouldn’t have things any other way. Becoming a father so young, though, has been a bit of a struggle; Spencer had help from his parents in the early days, and they took care of Connor while Spencer went to college, but it’s just been him and Connor for a decade and even now he is never sure he’s doing the right thing – something any parent of any age will identify with. But most of the time, things between them are pretty good, and if Spencer is sometimes lonely for adult companionship and conversation, if he’s missed out on his chance to find ‘the one’ – because what gay man his age is going to want to take on a teenaged boy as well? – then that’s the way it is. Having Connor in his life more than makes up for it.
Connor is fairly quiet and reserved, but it comes as a shock when Spencer discovers his son doesn’t have any friends and that he’s being bullied, and he panics. How can he not have noticed something that important? When a colleague recommends he signs Connor up for the local Big Brother program, he thinks it’s worth considering, and after a discussion (and a hefty bribe!) Connor agrees to give it a try.
Tim Ellis finished his psychology degree and intended to continue his studies at grad school, but dropped the idea when his professor made it clear that his acceptance to the master’s program was dependent on Tim’s having sex with him – and when he refused, the man threatened to blackball him at all the other colleges in the area. Tim broke up with his manipulative boyfriend a few months back, his mother is forever on at him to come home, to do this, or that, and instead of embarking on the career in child psychology he’d planned on, he’s back working at a friend’s bakery. He’s fed up and feeling useless, the one bright spot in his life his volunteer work at the local youth centre. Which is, of course, where he meets Spencer and Connor.
To say that Spencer and Tim get off on the wrong foot at their first meeting is an understatement of massive proportions, and they part actually hoping never to see each other again! Fortunately however, Tim and Connor get along really well, and their growing friendship eventually expands to include Spencer, and I loved watching Tim and Spencer become friends, then fall in love, and the three of them gradually become a family.
The story is told from Spencer’s and Tim’s viewpoints, but really there are three main characters, as Connor is integral to the story without overwhelming or unbalancing it. I adored all three of them; the characterisation is superb, and they’re all fully-rounded, complex individuals whose flaws and insecurities combine to make them feel incredibly real, and the dialogue is sharply focused and often very funny. Spencer is a bit chaotic, but he’s also hilarious – he’s cynical and sarcastic and has no brain-to-mouth filter (sometimes Connor seems to be the more mature of the two of them!), but his snarkiness is clearly a defence mechanism. Tim thinks he’s adorable, and it’s true – beneath the waspishness, he’s rather charming. Tim is six years younger, but seems to be a bit more ‘together’; he’s also the more sexually experienced of the two, which makes sense given Spencer has put his social and dating life in order to parent Connor.
The book tackles a number of serious issues, from the problems of being a father at fourteen to how to parent a child close to you in age, to how to protect and support that child in a way that still allows them to acquire the independence they need as they grow up. One of the things the author does very well is to expose the difficulties involved in handling bullying at school; as a teacher myself, it’s something I come up against a lot and while schools do their best, they can only do so much. And while I’m on the subject of school and teaching, the only parts of the book that didn’t work for me were mostly related to Spencer’s job. Some of the things he did and said (like texting during a lesson) were unprofessional (and here in the UK would have probably led to disciplinary action), and there’s an odd sub-plot relating to a female teacher who is widely known to sleep with older students, and who is still in a job. Here, she’d have been suspended at the merest whiff of a suspicion, let alone actual complaints.
Those things apart however, I loved The Family We Make and recommend it highly. The familial relationships that develop between Tim, Spencer and Connor are really well done, and the friendship between Tim and Connor, especially how Tim is absolutely there for Connor and makes sure to respect his privacy, was lovely to watch developing. There are some wonderful moments of raw emotion that perfectly capture the ups and downs of family life, and of what it’s like to love another person so much it hurts that really hit me in the feels, and the romance is a lovely, angst-free slow-burn. I loved that once Spencer and Tim start dating (and having sex), they’re exactly the same people with the same sense of dry humour and ability to snark back and forth that they always were, and by the end, I was completely convinced that these guys – all of them – were going to be together for the long haul.
The Family We Make is cute, funny, insightful, sexy and utterly delightful. It’s the fabulous feel-good read I didn’t know I needed in my life, and I’m so glad to have found it.