A Careful Heart, by Ralph Josiah Bardsley
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books
Release Date: March 1, 2017
Travis Gaines and Stephen Davis are as close as two best friends can be. Born less than a month apart, they grew up as neighbors in a small northern New Hampshire town. After college, they make their way together to Boston, craving the excitement and fast pace of New England’s biggest city.
As they get their bearings in Boston, Travis falls hard for Benson, a senior executive at the financial services firm where he works. Benson is wealthy, handsome, and well connected among Boston’s well heeled. At first it seems like Benson is everything a guy could ever want, but behind that glossy veneer is a dark side that threatens to tear Travis and Stephen’s friendship apart and change their lives forever.
Coming of Age
Content Warnings for:
So, here’s the thing. I really had high hopes for this book, especially since it was written by Ralph Josiah Bardsley, the same author who penned last year’s amazing The Photographer’s Truth – one of my favourite books of 2016. The Photographer’s Truth was a gorgeous and moving story, with beautifully nuanced, sympathetic characters and full of richly detailed settings. Perhaps unfairly, I was expecting more of the same here but A Careful Heart has a totally different vibe to it.
Where the prose in A Photographer’s Truth felt almost lyrical, A Careful Heart tells its story in a spare, almost abrupt way. Time moves very quickly both at the beginning and the end of the book, with months – and at times, years – passing within a few chapters. Unfortunately, that led to the feeling that I was being quickly ushered through this book, as though I had overstayed my welcome at a house party, and made it a little difficult to initially connect with the two main protagonists.
A Careful Heart follows the relationship of two friends, Travis and Stephen, from childhood to early adulthood. The meat of the story takes place just as they’ve gotten their first apartment together and are both working at their first post-college jobs. While as close as two friends can be, they are also completely different personalities, something that seems more evident the older they become.
Travis shook his head. “Why do you always to that?”
“Always turn things around so they’re good.” Travis looked at Stephen for a few seconds before turning back around and continuing their walk. “It’s not a bad thing, I guess. But it always seems like you’re just doing it to be obnoxious.”
Stephen turned in time with Travis and matched his stride as they started up Boylston again. “I don’t do it on purpose,” he said. Then after a few paces in silence. “I guess I just like to see the world in a certain way.”
While always assuming he was straight, Stephen finds himself attracted to Gabe, a police officer he meets while accompanying Travis to a gay bar. There is a connection between the two of them that both surprises and alarms him, and while initially jealous that there is competition for Stephen’s attention, Travis manages to get Stephen to admit how he feels.
“Stephen, are you just a little bit gay?”
“You mean am I attracted to guys?” Stephen’s voice was low and gravelly as he finally said the words out loud.
“That would be the question.”
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m not really attracted to that many people in general. I kind of think everybody just looks the same.”
“But this guy the other night?”
“Yeah…Something was different with him.”
I have to say the relationship between Stephen and Gabe is so lovely. They take such care with each other and I adored the way Gabe waited patiently for Stephen to come to terms with his own bisexuality and for his true feelings for Gabe. Despite the book switching between POVs (Stephen, Travis & Gabe), I feel like the author gave more insight into Gabe’s character than he did with either Stephen or Travis. The reason for that was unclear the whole time I was reading the book, but it does make Gabe the most sympathetic character. I suppose he felt that sympathy would be needed at the end, but Gabe’s motivations are crystal clear regardless of how we were meant to feel about him.
In all honestly, I hated the ending of this book when I first read it. It just seemed so implausible and convenient. But given a little distance, I’m not sure it could have ended any other way. All the signs were there and pointing in that direction, something that’s obvious if you go back and re-read certain parts. I will say that this does not end on an HEA and – in my mind, at least – even a HFN is questionable, but I did feel that all the characters really opened up for me and, for the first time, I felt invested in their happiness.
Rating and reviewing this book was difficult. Probably because my expectations and the reality of this book were so different. I just felt there was something lacking in this book, whether it was the style or the content, I don’t know, but it didn’t have the same magic as the author’s previous works. I will give all credit to him, though, for going in a direction I didn’t expect and for bringing light to a subject that we don’t talk about nearly enough. I just wish I had been able to connect with all of the characters earlier on as I feel the ending would have held far more emotional impact than it did. Regardless, I will recommend this book to anyone who enjoys good character driven novels.
Ralph Josiah Bardsley was born in a small town outside of Boston. His father was in the Coast Guard and he grew up in a lot of different places – New Orleans, Cape Cod, North Carolina and Sitka, Alaska. When he wasn’t in school, he spent most of his time in Coast Guard hangers or reading. Today he lives in San Francisco with his husband Dana. Ralph’s hobbies include writing, running and wine tasting! Ralph works in the high tech industry in marketing. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Greensboro College and a master’s in communication from Emerson College.
“My writing comes from a combination of imagination and people and places that have shaped who I am today. My first book, Brothers, pulls from my childhood growing up as part of a big Irish family. OK, my immediate family wasn’t that big, but I had tons of aunts and uncles, and I can’t tell you how much wonder and amazement comes from being part of a loud, rowdy and loving family.”
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.