A Guest Review by Cryselle
Review Summary: A slow start and multiple points of view coalesce into an engaging read.
An Opposites Attract novel
Fresh from backwoods Minnesota, actuarial student Ben Dutoit is ecstatic to land a job with Sydney Sutherland Family Insurance, one of the few companies that offers life insurance to people in the high-risk category. The fact that he gets to work in Gay Central, aka San Francisco, is just the icing on the rainbow-colored cake. Ben sets himself just three goals: be out and proud enough to participate in the Pride parade; seek out the company of like-minded souls in the clubs; and maybe, if he’s lucky, fall in love. But the men Ben meets are everything he’s not: suave, confident, sophisticated, and sexy. Unlike redneck Ben, they’re blue bloods from blue states, born with status, wealth, and the responsibility that comes with the package. Ben’s still wondering if red and blue can mix when he discovers what risk really means. The global economy tanks. The job he looked forward to is in jeopardy, and every dream Ben ever had is threatened, especially love, the biggest dream of all.
The setting of this story is unique—insurance is one of those non-sexy essentials, something we don’t usually think about unless we’re either paying a premium or making a claim. A.B. Gayle gives a behind the scenes look into an industry that runs off math and investing, mostly through the eyes of Ben, the actuarial student—he doesn’t spend much time crunching numbers, and he’s a lot sexier than the usual math nerd. He’s come flying out of the closet once he comes to San Francisco, and dips his pen into the company ink with Jason, who’s much wilder than the usual insurance salesman.
Jason’s handy and randy, but the man Ben’s really noticing is Adrian, the boss. Appearing much older than his thirty-five years, Adrian’s trying to get back into the shape he’s let slip since he returned to the United States to work in the family insurance business. They spend a lot of gym time together becoming friends, which is more than Ben really expects, because, well, Adrian’s the boss. He’s not entirely in control of the company—Adrian’s father may have retired from day to day operations but is still very much calling the shots. If the old man says Laurel will be chief actuary, then by golly, Laurel will be making decisions, and hanging on Adrian’s arm at social functions too.
The story follows Ben’s maturation into true adulthood, as his relationship with Jason evolves and his attitudes toward his work improve. The time frame is the 2008/2009 financial crisis, where more actuaries flip burgers than crunch numbers. He’s fortunate to have a mentor, even if it takes him a while to notice, and for a man whose field is predictions and risks, Ben’s really oblivious to how this affects him personally. When Jason the wild semi-boyfriend falls ill, it’s related to the risks he ran and shared with Ben, who now has a possible seroconversion to sweat out. After half the book, Jason’s out of the picture as a partner, but hovers in the background.
Adrian keeps his gayness so completely to himself that almost no one knows, and even fewer know the tragic backstory that frightens him regarding Jason and Ben, who are anything but discreet. His controlling father expects heteronormative appearances in order for Adrian to remain with the family business. Still grieving a lost lover, Adrian lives like an alcoholic monk only with more porn. He rationalizes staying with the company in order to continue offering insurance coverage to high-risk populations, including the HIV positive clients, a business segment his father would like to eliminate. Adrian lusts for Ben, but hesitates to reach out, and it isn’t until he takes that chance, more than halfway through the story, that things start to pop.
The structure here is unusual; the first third of the book relates the same events played out over several months, first from Ben’s first person POV, and then from Adrian’s. The Rashomon split between their perceptions is really deep, but establishing that they are coming from radically opposite headspaces could likely have been accomplished in half the space with none of the repetition, and by the beginning of part three, where it switches to a combined third person POV, I was gritting my teeth intermittently. However, the pace picks up considerably after that. The POV in part 3 could possibly be considered omniscient rather than wobbly third person, since it leans toward one man, then the other, without section breaks.
The sexual tension has a very slow build up to any action, fitting since Ben is somewhat involved with Jason, who apparently doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself, and they don’t blossom together until Jason moves away. A scene where Adrian silently lusts after a ‘sleeping’ Ben is one of the hottest moments of the book, very nicely done. They plunge into a sexual relationship during a trip that displays Ben’s strengths, and the situation requires them to be inventive. This is still presented as somehow inferior to complete anal sex. They didn’t always seem to be completely in the moment of what they were doing because one activity was out of reach. The specter of boss/employee inappropriate behavior does get addressed.
While I liked both Ben and Adrian as flawed but well-intentioned men, the other characters didn’t come off so well. Jason has some late-revealed layers, and Adrian’s controlling father is at last shown in his self-created loneliness, but the complexity for both comes just before they exit stage left. Laurel, alas, while smart, ambitious, and pretty, has all those characteristics portrayed with spectacular hatefulness, and comes across with little depth.
In the end, each man finds a way to stand up for what he considers truly important, and they find themselves together, again on the brink of establishing a relationship.
I really enjoyed the story, for the personal growth of the main characters—Adrian’s confrontation with his father is an extraordinary scene. The unusual setting, split between the insurance offices, the night life of the Castro, and a vineyard, also enhance the story, as does the inner workings of a product we need but don’t understand much. The author shows us some behind the scenes issues of two different businesses, and provides insight into what an actuary does without beating us with math. While the story would have benefited from streamlining the opening half, I plan to read more from this author. 3.5 stars