Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her was one of my favorite books in 2018. I initially doubted the story could or would appeal to me - as I mentioned in my review, it featured a heroine alternately described as rude, awkward, and, according to everyone in town, bad news. But I was completely won over by Ruth Kabbah, and blown away by the talent of this new-to-me author. Romantic and clever and heartbreaking and challenging and different... A Girl Like Her is special. Because of it, I had high (perhaps too high) hopes for future novels set in the Ravenswood world, but unfortunately, Ms. Hibbert tried to tackle one too many ‘big’ ideas in subsequent novels; they lacked focus and failed to measure up to that first wonderful book. I was on a Hibbert break - until I heard she was writing an m/m novel (loosely linked to the Just for Him series), and I just couldn’t stay away. Work For It doubles down - featuring not one, but two - challenging, damaged, flawed principal characters. And wow, Ms. Hibbert makes them - and us - work for it. But this happily ever after is worth it; Work for It is one of the best books of the year.
Olumide Olusegun-Keynes (“Olu”) is hiding - from his beloved sister, his friends... from the world. As readers learned in Undone by the Ex-Con, Olu was abruptly and painfully outed after spending most of his life in the closet after an ex-partner sold intimate photos of him to a blackmailer. The aftermath left Olu depressed and anxious, unwilling to admit to friends and family how much he’s struggling, and averse to physical touch or affection - though he continues to torment himself with brief, meaningless hook-ups. Beautiful, wealthy, and often cynical even before his partner betrayed him, Olu doesn’t believe he’s worthy of love or compliments or good things, and he hides his pain from those closest to him. Exhausted by London, Olu plots his escape. When a cordial advertisement catches his eye, he travels to Fernley, and volunteers to help with the local Fernley Farm elderflower harvest.
Griffin Everett is a gentle giant, ostracized by his small village because of his size and childhood alone with a depressed, single mother. His world became even smaller after she committed suicide, and Griff has spent the ensuing years trying and failing to overcome his sadness over her death, spending his days in solitude tending his plants, concocting delicious cordial recipes, and generally running the local elderflower farm on behalf of its mostly absent local owner. When his close friend Rebecca insists he come out to the local pub for a drink, he isn’t expecting to meet anyone. But from the moment he spots the handsome, beautiful, sophisticated stranger standing at the bar, he can’t look away. At Rebecca’s urging, he approaches the man, and shortly thereafter finds himself following him outside to a dark alleyway.
Nothing about Work for It is quite like you expect in a contemporary novel. The encounter in the alleyway ends in disaster, and there’s nothing funny or silly or sexy about it. Olu, afraid of his vulnerability in the face of Griffin’s gentle kindness, lashes out. It’s an ugly glimpse at the pain in Olu’s heart, and yet more proof to Griff that everyone ultimately rejects him. Afterwards, alone, both Olu and Griff can’t stop thinking about the encounter, confused and ashamed - for different reasons. And when they find themselves in each other’s company the following day - Griff runs the elderflower farm where Olu is volunteering - the meeting is awkward, tense and intense. Both men are wary of being hurt or of hurting each other again, and they awkwardly pretend an indifference neither feels.
I confess, until Griff and Olu meet again at the elderflower farm, I wasn’t really feeling either of these characters. Both men are so lonely and sad, and Olu is struggling with his depression - unwilling to trust his feelings or instincts, afraid to hope or wish for better - and I just couldn’t see how Ms. Hibbert was going to turn this story around. I feared she was going to treat ‘falling in love’ as some sort of magic elixir that solves feelings of loneliness, depression and sadness... and I dreaded it. I should have known better.
Ms. Hibbert doesn’t offer up a love panacea. Instead, we watch as these two slowly, painfully, carefully give in to the affection and trust and tenderness they can’t help feeling for each other. What starts as a cautious friendship with a big helping of lust, morphs into something bigger and better. Griff allows himself to finally open up about his mother, his history in the town, and his work at the farm, and invites Olu to do the same. Olu tries. He wants to be the man he is whenever he’s with Griff - but the nasty voice in his head tells him none of it’s real, and that if Griff really knew him, he’d reject him too. Oh reader, Olu’s inner voice is evil. But he tries anyway, and when he’s with Griff he keeps the awfulness at bay. Griff sees Olu struggling and tries not to press, but he also knows he’s falling in love with Olu, and wants to help him despite his resistance. Griff’s struggles resonated deeply with me, and I found this depiction of depression profoundly moving.
I’m reluctant to call this a slow burn romance because from the start it’s clear Griff and Olu are physically and emotionally connected. It’s a waiting game, hoping they figure out how to be together sooner vs. later. Neither man knows how to love or be loved, and they hurt each other even as they’re falling for each other. Ms. Hibbert lovingly crafts these wonderful, small, intimate moments between them, and when they finally get around to taking off their clothes, well, it’s a wonderfully satisfying relief. As usual, the author writes steamy sex scenes interposed with tender, deeply moving love-making, and these two have off-the-charts chemistry. I just wanted more, more, more. They’re so happy and gleeful together... le sigh. I loved them together - in bed and out of it. Olu is a wonderfully clever, sly, and deliciously wicked foil to Griff’s gentle, sweet, and mischievous gruff giant - and their affection for each other lights up every page. They take care of each other and it’s beautiful. When they’re together, they can’t deny the feelings between them - but when they’re apart, Olu’s demons plague him at every turn.
Work for It shines in every aspect - the characterization of the principal couple, the marvelous small village setting and its requisite inhabitants; Henry, the snobbish farm owner and his wife, brilliant best friend Rebecca, the friendly neighbor who ‘gets’ Olu right away, and its important secondary characters ; Olu’s amazing sister Elizabeth and her massive husband Isaac (Undone by the Ex-Con), and his persistent friend Theo (Bad for the Boss); and most especially in Ms. Hibbert’s stark, and unflinching examination of depression, unhappiness, loneliness, and rejection.
In less capable hands, this story might be silly or ridiculous or even unbearably miserable; it isn’t. It’s lovely, funny, poignant and simply marvelous. Work for It is one of my favorite books of the year.
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