Note: This ARC was provided by Riptide Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
Afterwards, Fen gave a shaky laugh. "I'm not much of a catch, you know."
"Well, given that I'm the kid who bullied you at school, neither am I."
"You're so much more than that."
"And you're so much more than what you've got going on now."
"When you say it—" colour broke out across Fen's cheekbones "—I almost believe you."
Ah, where do I begin with this book? How do I put into words how utterly blindsided I was by this beautifully complex love story between two men whose lives intersected in their youth and then again at the age of thirty? Prior to this, I had only read four of Alexis Hall's books—the two in the Kate Kane: Paranormal Investigator series, Sand and Ruin and Gold (which was my favorite short story for 2014), and Looking for Group (which is already on my current list of favorites this year)—with six more patiently waiting for me to realize what an idiot I've been for waiting this long to read them. And while I had no doubt that the author was a gifted storyteller, his latest release, Pansies, which is the fourth full-length novel in the Spires universe, has cemented my fangirl status. This book is, above and beyond, one of the most remarkably moving romances I've read in recent memory, and I'm not limiting that pronouncement to just M/M romances. I'm pretty sure that even by the end of this review, I still won't have come up with anything apt enough to explain why this was such an enthralling and touching reading experienced for me.
If you take one look at Alfie Bell, you'd think he was the perfect spokesperson for success. He was earning more money than he knew what to do with, lived in a penthouse flat in London, and had his dream car to drive around in. But if you asked him if he was happy, he'd probably hesitate before pretending he was. When he returns to his hometown of South Shields for his best friend's wedding, his unplanned announcement about being gay is a surprise to many, but not much to others. Then he ends up in a bar where one particular man catches his attention. It's only after they share the most memorable sexual encounter Alfie's ever had with anyone that the man who introduced himself as Fen informs Alfie that they do know each other. Fen is none other than James O'Donaghue, the schoolmate he and his friends relentlessly bullied for years. Alfie may have forgotten but Fen certainly hasn't. Even if their moment together tempts them both for a repeat, how could Alfie ever convince Fen that he's no longer the boy he once was? But how much of Alfie has really changed and are either of them ready for even more changes?
To say that Alfie and Fen were facing complications in their non-relationship would be an understatement. The idea of a childhood/teenage bully and his then-victim meeting as adults is intriguing, what more to have both of them falling for each other? But this isn't some purely sexual tryst for either of them, no matter how much they may have wanted to pretend that's all it was. The depth of Fen's confusing swirl of emotions when it comes to his former tormentor were laid out so eloquently and painstakingly in his letters to his mother, all of which had my heart squeezing for him in empathy. Alfie had his own confusion to deal with when it came to his sexuality, something that he only acknowledged years into his adulthood and seems to have difficulty coming to terms with when it comes to the stock knowledge in his head and what he feels in his heart. As their non-relationship becomes something more, it's clear that they have different ideas when it comes to being gay or queer and what love means and so on, what with Alfie stuck on labels and preconceived notions and ideas and Fen refusing to be boxed in or limited by archaic things.
I was fascinated by this novel and it was told in such a wondrous way, with how the prologue and epilogue were perfectly tied together, to how there really is a thin, often obscured, line between love and hate. There's angst and pain and hurt and anger, but there's also wit and humor, and that mystifying alchemy of levity and seriousness—the lightness and heaviness—was so well-balanced and seamlessly integrated and interspersed with one another that you don't even notice the shift from one feeling to another. Even the main characters were like each other's missing puzzle pieces that simply fit even when their situation was far from easy. This truly was Alfie and Fen's story to tell but it wasn't just about their falling in love. This was also about their ties to family and how they dealt with homophobia. It was about change and how changes—whether forced upon us or those we consciously make—can be looked upon as opportunities we never considered before but turn out to be those that shifts in our lives can make them better. With an unforgettable story and a fabulous cast of characters, Pansies is a 2016 favorite. Five-plus stars times ten. ♥
Date Read: 10 October 2016
Learn more about Alexis Hall.