Title: The Cool Part of His Pillow
Author: Rodney Ross
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy Link: Amazon
Genre: Contemporary M/M
Length: Novel (340 pages)
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by jeayci
Review Summary: This is a story of grief and healing, NOT a romance. Once I accepted that and started to care about the character, I enjoyed it.
Blurb: The midforties are that time in a gay man’s life when his major paradigm shifts from sexy to sensible. But when Barry Grooms’s partner of twenty years is killed on Barry’s forty-fifth birthday, his world doesn’t so much evolve as it does explode.
After navigating through the surreal conveyor belt of friends and family, he can’t eat another casserole or swallow much more advice, and so, still numb, he escapes to Key West, then New York. He embraces a new mantra: Why the hell not? He becomes so spontaneous he’s ready to combust. First, he gets a thankless new job working for a crazy lady in a poncho, then has too many drinks with a narcissistic Broadway actor. Next, it’s a nude exercise class that redefines flop sweat, and from there he’s on to a relationship with a man twenty years his junior, so youthfully oblivious he thinks Karen Carpenter is a lesbian woodworker.
Yet no matter how great the retreat from the man he used to be, life’s gravity spins Barry back to the town where he grew up for one more ironic twist that teaches him how to say good-bye with grace.
Review: I was anticipating this story as one of metamorphosis, that we’d experience Rodney bursting from the cocoon of grief and learning how to live Happily Ever After as a butterfly. Instead, most of the story takes place within the cocoon. A few chapters into it, I found myself remembering Billionaire’s Row (reviewed here by Aunt Lynn), wondering if this might be another non-romance from Dreamspinner. Indeed, like Billionaire’s Row, The Cool Part of His Pillow is ultimately a good story – though it took me a while to warm up to it – but it is NOT a romance. There are romantic elements, as Barry and Andy were together for 23 years before Andy’s death, and Barry’s memories of Andy and their relationship are woven throughout the story. But because Andy died, those romantic elements all have a bittersweet tinge.
Barry comes across as a sort of Sex-in-the-Cityish bitchy type, and although I liked Sex in the City I had trouble liking him until I was more than halfway done the first time I read it. The second read, I wondered why I had disliked him so, even as I could still sort of see it. I can easily imagine his humor working for a lot of people, and they will probably love him. I just don’t tend to find it entertaining to make fun of other people as a primary source of humor, nor do I tend to like people who do so. The story is told in first-person POV, so we’re in Barry’s head, seeing the world through his eyes. Disliking him made it difficult to get into the story, and I trudged through the first 3/4 or so of the book on the first read. By the last 1/4 I had begun to care about him, and I finally became engaged in the story and read eagerly.
Despite not liking him, I cried for Barry’s pain when Andy died. And I looked forward to how he would be changed by the grief, hopefully into someone I could like. And then there was chapter after chapter about his pain and grieving process. It was well done and believable, but not particularly enjoyable. I love angst; Keeping Promise Rock is one of my favorite books, and I flat-out bawled a few times reading it. But I love Deacon and Crick and their crazy, wonderful family of choice. Perhaps if I liked Barry I would have been sympathetic to his ongoing grief, but because I was really looking forward to his (presumed) transformation, it was just tiresome. Or, more likely given how much more I liked him the second read, if I had known to expect the detailed processing of grief going in, I might have been able to appreciate it for the true-to-life depiction that it was.
The book is also full of cultural references, which I’m sure will delight many readers. Maybe if I got all of them I’d have enjoyed it more, but as it was it left me feeling like I was missing the joke a lot of the time. Which is perhaps a good analogy for what I suspect being Barry’s friend might feel like, though with the added suspicion that the joke is on you.
When Barry jumps back into the dating pool again, his adventures are entertaining, though I felt as sorry for the dates who had to put up with him as I did for him having to put up with the dates he described. Then Barry settles briefly into a May-December relationship with a man nearly half his age. Given a few more years to mature, I could see the potential for Jarod to become appealing. However, at that stage of his life I mostly found him to be an obnoxious brat. As far as I could see the only appeal was getting laid (and a hot young body; not to be underestimated ;) ). Then again, I’m not sure what Jarod saw in Barry, either. I still didn’t like Barry at this point, though by then I was beginning to mind him a little less.
I finally started getting into it around Chapter Nineteen, and from Chapter Twenty on I had trouble putting it down. By then I really cared about Barry, and I got very teary several times. I loved the epilogue and how it completed the circle with the prologue. Barry is still single (again, this is NOT a romance!), but he’s moved through the grief to a place in himself where that butterfly can finally begin to emerge. He hasn’t found his “one true love” at the end of the book (that is still pretty clearly Andy) but he has begun to find himself. He is finally at a place where he could potentially fall in love with someone new and live Happily Ever After, if there’s a sequel. Even if there’s not, there’s a hopefulness about ending the story at this beginning place.
Psychology studies have found that two of the most lasting effects in any experience are the first and last (Primacy and Recency Effects). Because the prologue and epilogue were so well done, and so beautifully tied together, I finished the book with a feeling of satisfaction (and not just because I no longer had to be in Barry’s head!). It was also very well written, though with the occasional odd word choice (like ‘iterated’ when I suspect he meant ‘intimated’).
I really struggled with how to rate this one. I think the writing quality merits 4 stars, at least. But considering how much effort it took to get through the first 250+ pages the first time, I’d lean toward 2 stars. So I’m compromising on 3.5, because I liked it more on a reread. This is well worth reading if you’re looking for a realistic depiction of the grief process, and want a book that ends where life begins again. I think it’s probably easily a 4+ star read if you go into it with that expectation. Do not, however, pick it up when you’re in the mood for a romance!