Reviewed by Ulysses Dietz
Member of The Paranormal Romance Guild Review Team
“I’ve learned not to put my faith in human beings.”
It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Mia Kerick, but in looking over my reviews of her books from the past, I’m not entirely sure why she needed an alter-ego in Jude Munro. Possibly, it’s because the central characters in Born for Leaving are twenty-somethings and not teenagers. The point is that it is Kerick’s voice and her insights into young men’s emotions that make this book work. As Munro, I guess she can put more physical intimacy into the story, and I grant that in this book that detail is important to the core impact of the story.
Our narrator is Oliver Tunstead, a native-born resident of Gillamour Island, somewhere near the New England coast. Having been raised by a selfish, meddlesome mother and a passive father who didn’t help, Oliver has become an introvert. His only friend is his aging yellow lab, Hugo. Gotta love a dog that smiles. Strangely, for an introvert, Oliver works at a popular bar on the island, where his training as a mixologist is put to good use. He uses the physical bar as his protection, keeping his interaction with actual people to a minimum—until, of course, the doorman (aka bouncer) bails, leaving Oliver in charge of managing human interaction.
Oliver has other things he wants from life, like the mortgage on his little cottage with yellow shutters, and a second-hand yellow VW beetle convertible. To attain those goals, he answers a laconic ad in the local paper, hoping that the horror of sharing his home with another person will be worth it for the cash he’ll get.
The mysterious Bodie turns out to be a strapping six-foot-three redhead with the body of a Greek god, and an oddly shy manner. What Oliver (whom Bodies instantly renames Ollie) soon sees is that Bodie got badly broken somewhere along the line. He can handle bullies and tough guys, but the very idea of sex seems to terrify him. As Ollie learns bits and pieces of Bodie’s story, he begins to realize that his own trauma pales in comparison.
In most ways this is a classic m/m structure; but Kerick/Munro make both Ollie and Bodie interesting, complicated guys. Oliver is brave, almost to the point of self-neglect. For all that he’s immured himself inside a wall of misanthropy, he is desperate for the kind of unconditional love he never got at home.
Bodie, for his part, has survived a horror story of neglect and rejection, to the point where he can’t trust other people or his own body. That’s why, as he puts it, he was “born for leaving.” He keeps on the move rather than risk rejection.
For a small-scale story with little plot outside the immediate focus on the two young men, Kerick/Munro weaves a tale that is carefully crafted and rather intense. I confess that I was less taken with Oliver than with Bodie. Ollie is weirdly self-destructive in his refusal to look outside his own resources for help. Bodie, on the other hand, is stronger, less dysfunctional in spite of his brokenness. His greatest enemy is his own shame.
I liked Oliver’s co-workers from the bar, Mika, Sam, and Nico. The author uses them to good advantage to demonstrate that Oliver is not entirely the anti-social jerk he tries to be. While not used a lot in the narrative, these three young people (not counting the dog, who matters, of course) prove very handy in getting us behind Oliver’s façade. Oliver’s treatment of his colleagues went a long way toward redeeming him in my eyes.
Jack Wheeler, owner of the bar and thus Oliver’s boss, is an appalling character. It is he, not Oliver’s unhappy mom, who is the villain of the piece. It is shocking the way the author leans on the fact that young people in urgent need of money just to live their lives are forced to put up with things at work that are both upsetting and frankly illegal. What at times seemed to be simple idiocy (like not calling in the local police after an assault) ultimately was revealed to be the result of a lack of any sense of agency on the part of those at the mercy of unscrupulous people who have power over their lives.
I was surprisingly moved by the shocking denouement of the story. It was not a complete surprise, but in the author’s skilled hands it became operatic in its emotional punch.