Title: Saugatuck Summer
Author: Amelia C. Gormley
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Rating: 5/5 Smooches
One summer can change everything.
Hi, I’m Topher Carlisle: twenty-one, pretty, and fabulous. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. But let’s get real. Walking the fake-it-til-you-make-it road to independence and self-respect isn’t easy. Especially since my mom’s a deadbeat alcoholic, and most of my family expects me to turn out just as worthless. Oh, and I’m close to losing my college swimming scholarship, so let’s add “dropout” to the list.
My BFF has invited me to stay at her beach house on the shore of Lake Michigan. That’ll give me one summer to make money and figure out what I want to do with my life. So of course I decide to have an affair with my BFF’s married, closeted dad. Because that always works out.
Now I’m homeless, friendless, jobless. Worthless. Just like my family expects, right? Except there’s this great guy, Jace, who sees it differently. He’s got it all together in ways I can only dream of—he’s hot, creative, insightful, understanding. He seems to think I don’t give myself enough credit. And if I don’t watch out, I may start to believe him.
“Well, dumping your baggage on someone isn’t the same as letting them in. Some people use candor as a shield. Best defense is a good offense, right? You blurt it all out and then you wait for the inevitable revulsion when the other person just walks away from it. The ones you really want to keep around are the ones you hide the bad stuff from until you feel safe.”
Topher Carlisle is a fabulous. He also is an emotional mess, although he doesn’t quite realize it. Thanks to the dysfunctional and cruel adults in his life, Topher has been taken advantage of, treated poorly, abused (mentally, physically and sexually) and made to feel inferior to others.
Constantly striving for acceptance and love, Topher makes some not-so-good choices in his life. This summer he is looking for a break, and instead of relaxing and getting himself together, he winds up having an affair with his best friend’s father, alienating himself from his best friend, arguing with his family, and ultimately, falling in love.
Amelia Gormley is a wonderful writer. This first person narrative is engaging, beautifully written and heartbreaking. The fact that the book is told from Topher’s perspective is welcome, intriguing and very refreshing. The reader learns through internal dialogue and Topher’s conversations with others how dysfunctional Topher’s family is and how much the young man tries to break the cycle of enabling he has in his life: first with his mother and then, to an extent, with Brendan Gardner.
Topher knows the relationship with Brendan is wrong. He knows it is temporary. He knows he is risking ruining his relationship with his best friend. When the inevitable happens and the relationship comes to an end, it is the reaction from the older man that puts Topher over the edge thinking maybe he really is worthless and doesn’t deserve to be happy.
Throughout the story, Topher’s vulnerability, immaturity and self-depreciation are apparent. He seems to have some good ideas and plans, but it is clear he lacks self-confidence.
I’ll probably try to find a job around here to save up enough money to re-enroll this fall, though I imagine most of the seasonal job openings have been taken by now. It’ll need to be something that still lets me swim twice a day. My scholarship isn’t a full ride, and between training and classes, I don’t know if I can balance having a job during the school year, too, at least not without my grades taking a nosedive. But the news about how people are struggling for decades to pay off their student loans these days is pretty scary. I really don’t want to go into debt if I don’t have to, you know?”
What I didn’t add was that most of that was my own fault. Well, not really, but I blamed myself anyway. After the ordeal of my mom’s suicide attempt midway through my freshman year, my chronic depression had gone into overdrive, to the point where my meds weren’t working very well. Both my academic and athletic performance had suffered, which was why I was now in danger of losing my scholarship if I didn’t turn it around. So it wasn’t really my fault, because I was sick, but there was always a portion of my brain that adhered to my family’s insistence that I was lazy, and not applying myself. I should just be able to make up my mind and get over it, right? I wasn’t trying hard enough to be the person I should be, or to, you know, make myself functional enough to drag my ass out of bed in the morning. Back in high school, it had taken them forever to agree to me going on antidepressants in the first place.
On the outside, Topher presents himself as being fabulous, but he struggles with his self-esteem and accepting that he is not the loser his relatives make him out to be. He is vulnerable, which makes him very susceptible to Brendan’s advances, and in typical fashion, Topher blames himself for the affair continuing.
Jace is a beacon of hope. Readers first meet Jace when Topher is sunning on the beach. Jace strikes up a conversation, and the two men hook up before the affair with Brendan begins. He invites Topher to a club to celebrate Topher’s birthday.
The sex scene with Jace is hot and intense, and readers are not sure whether his character is being genuine or sleazy when he asks Topher if he can take photos of him before and after sex. And, that is the genius of Gormely’s writing style. Since this book is written in first person point of view, the reader only gets the story from Topher’s perspective. The reality of the story unfolds for the reader through Topher’s eyes. Topher is leery of Jace’s request, but he allows him to photograph him anyway.
The next day, when Brendan presents Topher with a special homemade dinner and birthday cupcakes, the tables turn for Topher. After all, Jace was just a one night stand, and Topher is grateful that Brendan – his best friend’s straight and married father - cares about him. Topher connects with Jace on a physical level and Brendan on an emotional one.
“You’re a bright, beautiful young man, Christopher Carlisle. And it’s their loss they drove you away. But I’m glad you see that you deserve better than that. Don’t give in on that, okay? Demand that people respect you, no matter who you are or choose to be. You’re worth respecting.”
He slid his arm around my shoulders in one of those halfhug/squeeze things. Platonic. Nothing inappropriate about it at all, except for that teeny-tiny flare in the screwed-up wiring of my brain that didn’t know how to respond to kindness from a gorgeous man except with attraction. It wasn’t a come on. He wasn’t trying to get into my pants and, truly, I didn’t want him to. He was just comforting and encouraging me. Which was, frankly, better than his coming on to me ever could be. So much better.
After a moment, I told that fucked-up part of my brain that confused affection with lust to cool it and leaned against him, accepting what he offered.
Until, of course, what Brendan is offering changes. Brendan knows how vulnerable Topher is, and he cannot seem to stop himself from starting a sexual relationship with the young man.
When Topher’s world seems to crash around him, Jace shows up again. As the reader learns, there is a lot more depth to Jace then Topher realized. The two men form a fast and intense bond, and through intimacy reveal their pasts, their needs and their hopes for a positive future.
But Topher has been hurt so much. He doesn’t feel that he deserves Jace, and he doesn’t trust his feelings. Jace does not give up so easily.
He pulled me down so that I rested with my head on his shoulder, tucked under his chin. I could hear his heartbeat and feel the light stroking of his fingertips against my scalp. The warmth of his arms around me was amazing. Again, the only word I could come up with for it was protected. Fuck, that word was terrifying. I didn’t try to throw him off and get away this time, but it took an effort not to.
“I don’t know you all that well, but I know you’re an amazing guy, Topher,” he whispered against my hair. I shook my head in denial, but he wouldn’t stop. “Maybe you’re confused now. Maybe you make mistakes, and you’re not sure where you’re going or what you’re doing, but you give off this vibe that tells me … Well, I would bet anything I own that you’ve been through things that would send most people into booze or drugs or cutting or suicide or just being so sick and fucked up that they can’t function. Don’t you see, angel?”
His arms tightened around me. “You’re still on your feet. You may hate yourself for every little mistake you make, but the fact that you’ve survived means you’ve come out on top. It might not be a perfect victory, but those are really, really rare.
Every day you stand up and face life again is a win.”
When Jace’s past is revealed through his conversations with Topher, readers are treated to more of Gormley’s wonderful story weaving abilities. Jace has had a challenging life, especially after his parents sent him to conversion therapy after learning he was gay. Jace, who is a little older than Topher, recognizes a kindred spirit in Topher.
Gormley is a phenomenal writer. This story is beautifully constructed, and the themes running through it are realistic, and teeming with heartbreak, angst and humor. It is wonderfully refreshing to read a book written from the main character’s point of view, and for the reader to discover what makes the characters’ tick as the narrator makes those same discoveries. This not-so-simplistic, angst-filled plot is enhanced by Gormely’s wonderful character development, smooth dialogue and descriptive prose.
Thank you to Net Galley and Riptide Publishing for providing a review copy of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.