This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by HeatherT. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Long Contemporary category.
Can the fully paid-up pansy make things right with the pink-tipped hipster?
A Spires Story
Alfie Bell is . . . fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was eighteen, and a bunch of fancy London friends.
It’s rough, though, going back to South Shields now that they all know he’s a fully paid-up pansy. It’s the last place he’s expecting to pull. But Fen’s gorgeous, with his pink-tipped hair and hipster glasses, full of the sort of courage Alfie’s never had. It should be a one-night thing, but Alfie hasn’t met anyone like Fen before.
Except he has. At school, when Alfie was everything he was supposed to be, and Fen was the stubborn little gay boy who wouldn’t keep his head down. And now it’s a proper mess: Fen might have slept with Alfie, but he’ll probably never forgive him, and Fen’s got all this other stuff going on anyway, with his mam and her flower shop and the life he left down south.
Alfie just wants to make it right. But how can he, when all they’ve got in common is the nowhere town they both ran away from.
Here is HeatherT's review:
There are so many things right about Pansies, and I loved the author’s For Real ( A | BN | K | iB ) so much, that it feels like a betrayal that I did not love Pansies with the same deep and abiding love that I felt for For Real. Although I loved the writing, as I wrote this review I kept seeing more problems with the story and the grade plummeted as a result. The story focuses on Alfie, a man’s man, an “ordinary bloke” from a small town near the Scottish border. Alfie is back home from London for his best mate’s wedding and feeling self-conscious because he recently came out as gay to his family but not to anyone else in town. After accidentally shouting “Gay. I’m gay. I like cock!” at the wedding reception, he decides to go out and find some local action. He picks up a guy, Fen, at a local pub and the two go off and have hot sex. It is only afterwards, when Fen is unaccountably angry, that Alfie realizes that he knows Fen – the two went to high school together. And Alfie was a horrible bully to Fen.
As the story unfolds, Alfie has to come to terms with who he was, who he is now, and who he wants to be. Fen is more settled and comfortable with who he is, but he’s at a difficult time in his life. He has always known that he is genderqueer, so that isn’t a problem for him. He also knows that he has always had a thing for Alfie, even when Alfie was being a horrible bully to him. Fen’s mother recently died, so Fen is dealing with that, giving up his whole life and a serious boyfriend to come back north to try to run his mum’s flower shop, and he isn’t doing well. Into this plonks Alfie. Foolish, naïve Alfie with his messed-up priorities, his narrow understanding, his parochial family who love him but cannot seem to accept or understand his orientation, and his very fancy car.
The story is incredibly well written, with many funny, clever or touching lines and moments. As I read I kept thinking “oh, that would be a great quote for the review.” There is a scene where clueless but ever hopeful Alfie decides to help Fen by fixing a shower curtain rod that they had accidentally pulled out of the wall of Fen’s bath. The hilariousness of Alfie’s incompetence had me laughing so hard I scared my cats.
Alfie is a fully-developed character, even if he is one who we don’t like very much. He’s athletic, good looking and popular. He was viciously mean to Fen in high school, but he remembers it as a casual game – just a thing that guys do. He did all the things that one is expected to do – went to all the popular hang outs, dated girls, became an investment banker in London. His worldview is stunningly provincial – it’s a wonder he even managed to figure out he is gay.
Fen, on the other hand, has always been different. He left the small town, went to London and was a success in theater lighting design – he was an “It” guy in the London scene. A huge problem with the book is the characterization of Fen – we find out the above about Fen only late in the book and only through Alfie doing a Google search. The book is largely written from Alfie’s point of view, and unfortunately that means that we mostly see Fen only as Alfie sees him – as a beautiful sexy fey being and completely one-dimensional. I couldn’t get a clear picture in my head of what Fen looks like, and certainly couldn’t see him as a grown-up man. The cover of the book didn’t help, and the descriptions of Fen as constantly “curling up” in Alfie’s arms emphasized the characterization of Fen as something other than a grown up real person. That was a problem for me, especially because (1) as between the two of them, Fen is probably the better at adulting and (2) I don’t like reading about sex with a person I can’t see as an adult.
This brings us to the end of the book, and the more I thought about it, the more I had a problem with the ending. Alfie enthusiastically pitches in to help Fen make his mother’s flower shop successful. However, Fen’s dad points out that, unlike Alfie, Fen shouldn’t be hanging out in a small town being a florist. Fen should be in London pursuing his art and living his life fully. Alfie sees that he is holding Fen back and he leaves Fen and goes back to London, where he is miserable. After moping about for a while, Alfie’s best friends (who are great characters) point out that Fen is a grown person who can make his own decisions, and Alfie is treating Fen like a child by not trusting Fen to be able to decide on his own to stay in the small town, run a flower shop and be with Alfie. They pile into the car, drive north, all are reconciled and it is HEA.
Let’s think about that, shall we? Let’s say that instead of being a man, Fen was a woman. What would we think of a book where a woman gets together with the man who bullied and physically abused her in high school? Now, in fairness, the grade school bully from my childhood has reformed and I would do him in a stone-cold second, so I can believe that that scenario is possible. However, even if the bully genuinely reforms (and Alfie does), what would we think if that woman gave up her dreams and her calling to stay stuck in a small town where she doesn’t fit, running a business she doesn’t like, all to be with a clodmeister ex-bully?
Where does that leave us? The book is beautifully written, with many fully developed characters (all revolving around Alfie), great dialogue, funny moments, thoughtful insights and a compelling story for one character. I loved how the book avoided cliché and had characters that really stood out as real, complicated people. For example, Alfie’s family doesn’t suddenly accept him for who he is and join in a group hug – his parents are genuinely heartbroken and confused about his sexual orientation – and they remain that way.
This book is about Alfie’s journey. Alfie’s personality, his friends, and his family are all fully realized. Every aspect of his coming to grips with who he was and who he wants to be is explored. His story completes an arc and is satisfying. Even with the ending, the point is that Alfie needs to learn that Fen can make his own decisions and that Alfie should respect him enough to make those decisions.
The problem is that existing solely as the object of Alfie’s story, poor Fen doesn’t stand a chance. Once I left the book and Alfie’s perspective, I could see that Fen’s decision didn’t make sense for Fen. This book would have been a masterwork if Fen’s story had been as developed as Alfie’s – perhaps a sequel? As it is, I have to give it a grudging B-.