An unhappily married man... A rent boy... Something DifferentThe story opens at a crisis point in Michael's life. For years he's only lived half a life, shunned by an increasingly cool wife and watching his children grow evermore distant as they age, surrounded by friends who talk a good good game about extramarital dalliances and the pleasures that can be purchased in London after dark. One night is all he's looking for. One night of real pleasure and self-indulgence.
What Michael finds that night in Brixton Park isn't some willing woman; some jaded tart who will service him with all the care of a mechanic, but James Campbell, a young man with a smart mouth and even smarter tongue. Michael's looking for something different; something he can't get at home. James is as different as it gets.
Thus starts a wonderful, touching and always brutally realistic tale about two disenchanted men building something real out of the artificiality of their lives. The sex isn't Olympic-standard - it's barely passable half the time - because James and Michael both have hang-ups that they struggle to shrug off. Instead of being threatened by what others would perceive as failure on each of their parts to perform according to expectation, they accept what the other give, they work with what they have and they build on it, slowly fixing what's broken.
Baggins tackles some big themes - childhood sexual abuse; sexually transmitted diseases; prostitution and infidelity and monogamy. She doesn't pull her punches, and she doesn't shy away from exposing the 'establishment' as often as those who have fallen from grace. The parallels between the mercenary natures of both marriage and prostitution are clearly outlined. While her characters might not always make the 'right' choices in the eyes of the morality brigade, they're real, they're true to themselves and they make the right choices - the only choices - for them.
I've seen before the theme of married men having affairs with other men. Usually they follow the same old cliches that you hear in real life: "My wife doesn't understand me," "I felt pressured to marry," "My wife doesn't give me what I need," et cetera, et cetera. This book doesn't fall into that trap. Yes Michael's wife is cold and distant, but he is just as cold and distant back. Not entirely his fault, but the crux of their relationship is that they don't communicate with each other about the things that really matter. She wanted a husband who would give her a certain standard of life; he wanted someone - anyone - to love him. They married each other for the wrong - but completely understandable - reasons, and repented at leisure before Michael's infidelity forced a crisis which was sorely needed.
Most of all I love the realism of Something Different. I love that the characters aren't perfect, that they make mistakes, that they make decisions that are morally dubious at best. Yes, sometimes they're downright stupid, but they're real, they're so human that it hurts. Speaking as a reader increasingly jaded by romances where the entire plot can be construed from the first paragraph - nice, safe books where no-one is unfaithful - physically or emotionally - under any circumstance; where people are either gay or straight with nothing in between and never look at a person of the opposite sex once they understand how gay they really are, I welcomed this book with open arms. Too often we allow ourselves - as readers; as writers - to become bogged down with labels. Human nature cannot be labelled, it doesn't fit neatly into a box, it defies convention at every turn, it upends our lives just when we think we've got them how we want them. It's inconvenient and indefinable and downright incorrigible and Baggins simply nails it.
It is because of their imperfections that I love Michael and James's story as much as I do. They muddle along, trying to get it right, trying to do the right thing, and when it does come together and it does work, it's a million times more satisfying for the struggle they've had to get there. Simply put, they accept each other on face-value in a world where everyone is judged, where an ulterior motive lurks behind every action or inaction. The self-depreciating humour had me laughing out loud; the little details had me nodding along because I know these men, I've met them before countless times in real life; and the pitch-perfect romance had me grinning like a fool because it's so sweet, so tender and so moving that it made my heart ache.
Something Different is a superb story by a talented writer and I highly recommend it.
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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