Reviewed by: Ulysses Dietz
Member of The Paranormal Guild Review Team
How does an classic m/m romance transcend its genre? With wonderful writing. Therein lies the chief joy of reading Roe Horvat’s “The Layover.” Horvat’s textured, wry, and sometimes poetic prose takes what would be otherwise a charming tale of stranded travelers and makes it into an epic love story.
Ondro Smrek is going home in defeat. Having run away from his native Slovakia eight years earlier, taking a job as an airline steward simply as a means of well-paid escape, he realizes he has no more purpose in running. The only attraction that Bratislava has for him is his old friend Kristina. Stuck in the Basel airport on a cold winter night, Ondro spots a skinny young man wearing an absurd purple fedora and striped black and yellow socks. What begins as a half-hearted attempt at a one-night stand ends up pushing Ondro’s whole world off its axis.
Like every good romance novel, there is a dark backstory; but most of it is Ondro’s. After he commences his pick-up of Jamie, who turns out to be an American academic scientist living in Edinburgh, he finds himself stricken by the guileless intelligence and ethereal beauty of this young man. As the two men talk away the evening, the author reveals details about both men. Ondro has plenty of darkness behind his flight from home: a distant, resentful family, a homophobic country, and a failed relationship that culminates in a tragedy about which he learns through the Internet. Jamie, on the other hand, is a well-loved affluent American boy, whose only tragedy lies in his guilt at being so privileged; whose flight to Edinburgh comes from his need to care about something bigger than himself. That Jamie is unlucky in romance is incidental. That Jamie finds Ondro appealing and likeable as a person seems—to Ondro—nothing short of miraculous.
There is what could be simply another requisite love scene early in the book; but in Horvat’s hands it is possibly the loveliest such encounter I’ve ever read. I’ve read thousands of sex scenes in m/m novels over the years, some better than others. In the beginning, when I first discovered this genre, I found them exhilarating, because to me they were a new thing. Since then, I’ve become jaded and cynical, and often skip over the sexual moments in books, with all their tired tropes and embarrassing jargon. I’m looking for deeper, more important aspects of the characters.
Not here. Here there were tears in my eyes and my heart was pounding, as if I was a young man discovering sex all over again. This is all carefully wrought; Horvat wants us to see Ondro’s awakening from his years of self-imposed exile. Already charmed by Jamie, we see Ondro’s emotional armor battered and ripped away by his sexual encounter with the young American. Already, his transformation—resurrection if you will—has begun.
A nearly farcical incident in the airport leaves both Jamie and Ondro stranded again. This time it is entirely unromantic, and Ondro is forced to care for Jamie as if they were a longtime couple. More importantly, Ondro has to confront his own attitudes, his own anger; his own self-hatred. He begins to imagine the most impossible things; things like happiness and a life lived with love.
This is not a long book, but it is as exquisitely crafted as could be. Most of the novel is seen from inside Ondro’s head, and this perspective lets us witness firsthand the liberation of a broken soul. “The Layover” appears to be Roe Horvat’s first foray in LGBT literature. It’s an auspicious beginning, and a harbinger of good things to come.