Review Summary: A dark, gritty, inspiring book that’s not for the faint of heart. L.A. Witt at her best.
Neil Dalton’s foundation is already cracking. Grief, guilt, and PTSD have ruled his life since a terrible crime tore his world apart last year, and he’s dreading a holiday visit with the family he simultaneously needs and resents. Then someone from his past shows up and rattles that shaky foundation right out from under him.
First a war nearly destroyed Jeremy Kelley, then his family threw him out when he needed them the most. Now he’s barely holding on emotionally. He spends his last dollar to get to Chicago and prays his former best friend won’t leave him out in the cold.
Neil and Jeremy spend the holidays with Neil’s family in their hometown of Omaha. They struggle to deal with families, flashbacks…and feelings that haven’t even begun to fade since their last failed attempt at more than friends. As they try to repair their fractured psyches and rebuild damaged bridges, they rely on each other more than ever, but they can’t deny the mutual attraction that’s existed since before they were both emotionally battered and scarred. If they couldn’t make it work back then, how in the world can they pull it off now?
I’m the least likely person to actually enjoy books with lots of angst, but there are a few exceptions and that almost always depends on the author. L.A. Witt is well known for writing stories with angst but she makes her MCs believable and in addition, she doesn’t use angst as a weapon. From Out in the Cold is everything I really shouldn’t like: it’s very dark with not even a sliver of light, two MCs who are a half step away from disaster, there appears to be no possibility of a future between the guys, and their lives seem to me to be on the edge of a precipice at every turn. Yet I loved this book and couldn’t put it down, as Neil and Jeremy touched my heart and made me believe in their love.
As outlined in the blurb, both MCs had endured more than their share of tragedy and heartbreak. Although only 27 years old they appear to have given up on happiness because of their past. Neil had lost his boyfriend of 2 years in a crushing hate crime over a year ago and he was suffering from survivor’s guilt because Bruce had saved his life at the expense of his own. He had been in counselling for 6 months for PTSD but couldn’t move on.
Neil had lived in Chicago for almost a decade but still hated the city with its biting cold in the winter, and the frigid temperatures were evident throughout the book. He had moved to the windy city because his family did not accept his sexual orientation. They told him when he came out that while they still loved him, they didn’t want to discuss his “lifestyle.” In view of his family’s attitude he couldn’t talk to them about Bruce, his brush with death, his love for the man who had saved his life, and his grief at Bruce’s violent passing. He was in such a state of grief it was almost visceral.
One evening just before Christmas, as he was about to enter his apartment building he saw what looked like a homeless man standing on his step. That person was his childhood best friend Jeremy who was almost unrecognizable as he hadn’t seen him in 5 years. Jeremy and Neil had lost touch with each other after two unsuccessful attempts to move their relationship in a different direction, which messed up their friendship. Jeremy was shivering in the bitter cold, and was barely able to ask Neil through chattering teeth if he could stay with him that evening.
Jeremy told Neil his story, that his family had requested he never call them again or visit when they found out through an ex, in the worst way possible, that he was gay. This happened at a time when he needed them the most. He could not re-enlist in the armed forces as the horror of what he had seen was fresh in his mind. He had nowhere to go and no money, and he had to scratch any plans to be home for the holidays. He spent his last dollar on a bus to Chicago, hoping that Neil was still at his old address and would help him.
After their time apart Jeremy and Neil had to get to know each other all over again. They were both suffering from PTSD although the cause was different. Jeremy didn’t even know what was wrong with him as he had not been diagnosed. His fragile mental state left by the war was like an open, untreated wound as he had not sought medical intervention for his undiagnosed condition, so he was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Neil on the other hand knew what was wrong with him because he had sought help and was in counselling, but he still couldn’t cope emotionally or mentally with Bruce’s death, especially the circumstances surrounding it.
Neil and Jeremy couldn’t talk to each other about their agony because both were closed off emotionally, so any chance of repairing their 20 year friendship or healing their wounds appeared to be remote. As Jeremy concluded:
We were both a mess. Two train wrecks. We’d been mind-fucked by an incredibly cruel world, and if either of us was ever back to normal, it would be a long, long time.
Adding to Neil’s stress was his annual trip home at Christmas to visit with the family who refused to accept his sexuality and told him to leave it at the door. He had no outlet for his grief and nightly terror which was at its height every year from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Since Jeremy had nowhere else to go for the holidays Neil invited him home.
This book is not a light read as it’s an emotional journey of two desperate men whose grief was raw. Jeremy had lived almost his entire life in Omaha before he escaped for 8 years by joining the military, a worse fate that exposed him to the horrors of war, and now he was just hoping to make it through what was left of his life, without cracking.
I was able to appreciate some of the effects of war on soldiers who were “lucky” enough to return home, damaged beyond repair, and see through the eyes of the MCs how PTSD affected the physical and mental health of people suffering from this dreaded disease which many governments refuse to even acknowledge, much less pay for much needed therapy.
The cold permeated this book and was like another character, as the author’s worldbuilding skills were evident when she took us from Chicago to Omaha in the winter – the chill was real and palpable. I appreciated Jeremy’s trauma about the reality of war through flashbacks: his friends coming home in body bags; picking up the pieces of his buddies after an IED rolled their vehicle; having his comrades die in his arms; and returning home mentally and physically devastated. However, I don’t want you to think of this book as unrelieved and unrelenting doom and gloom because it’s not. There were times when the MCs had fun, such as Neil’s and Jeremy’s getaway to the Bridges of Madison Country, another opportunity for the author to showcase her worldbuilding skills as this was a place that I might want to visit someday, but definitely not in the winter.
To summarize: From Out in the Cold is engaging and compelling. PTSD is horrific and you will come to appreciate some of its effects – being out of control, the terror, the dreams, the night sweats, the coping mechanisms, and the consequences. Its impact on the characters is highlighted as they are abandoned by family due to ignorance, ingrained prejudices and a lack of human kindness. On the other hand, I loved how Bruce came alive in the book. As always in any L.A. Witt book, all of the characters were three dimensional and I ended up liking Neil’s parents.
You probably realize from this review what a profound effect this book had on me, and the MCs definitely had to earn their HEA. This story is told from both protagonists’ POV.
Highly, highly recommended.