The Rebuilding Year
Author: Kaje Harper
Cover Artist: Angela Waters
Length: 298 pages
Losing nearly everything leaves room for the one thing they can’t live without.
A few excruciating minutes pinned in a burning building cost Ryan Ward his job as a firefighter, the easy camaraderie of his coworkers, his girlfriend, and damn near cost him his left leg. Giving up, though, isn’t an option. Compared to the alternative, choosing a new profession, going back to school, and renting a room from the college groundskeeper are simple.
Until he realizes he’s falling in love with his housemate, and things take a turn for the complicated.
John Barrett knows about loss. After moving twice to stay in touch with his kids, he could only watch as his ex-wife whisked them away to California. Offering Ryan a room seems better than rattling around the empty house, but as casual friendship moves to something more, and a firestorm of emotions ignites, the big old house feels like tight quarters.
It’s nothing they can’t learn to navigate, though. But when dead bodies start turning up on campus—and one of the guys is a suspect—their first taste of real love could go up in smoke.
Contains two hot men wrestling with a shift in their sexuality, as well as a few positions probably listed in the Gay Kama Sutra. But it’s not all about the hot and sweaty—especially when your previously straight life knocks on the door and comes back to visit.
Given the astonishing amount of baggage the protagonists have to carry, Kaje Harper has done a superior job of presenting just the right amount of seriousness leavened with humor. Both Ryan and John are in the middle of redefining their lives when they meet, and manage to come together as part of it.
Ryan’s life has been totally disrupted by the fire that dropped a burning beam on him, trapping and nearly killing him. Missing big chunks out of his leg, and lucky to have what’s left, Ryan has gone back to his original dream, put on hold after a disaster changed his family and his focus. Instead of firefighting and rescues, he’s in medical school, having no trouble with the academics, although the social aspects are provoking, since he’s noticeably older and far more world-weary than his classmates. While he’s played with his share of shallow but willing women, he’s beyond that now and doesn’t want to listen to the nightly exploits of his roommate.
John has spent his entire adult life being a family man: married at eighteen to his pregnant girlfriend, he’s now trying to be a good father to his two children even after the divorce and his ex’s remarriage. It’s not easy either, when teenagers aren’t very talkative and the ex finds endless barriers to put between them.
It suits both men to have Ryan move in; they’ve become friends and expect to get along all right sharing a big house. Becoming lovers is absolutely not on the radar, although acting as each other’s wingman could be. It isn’t until a moment of shared pain leads to a kiss that they touch one another, and then I had to giggle as they sprang apart with EEEEEEH! We’re not gay! They have to find their way back to comfortable friendship, but do go on to become lovers in a thoughtful but not over-angsty way. This new facet of their sexualities doesn’t sit well with either of them at first, and they have to grope their way to understanding themselves.
While John and Ryan are learning to accept their desire for each other, John’s troubled teenaged son appears on the doorstep needing refuge. He’s a good kid but beaten down by his step-father’s assumptions and demands. Of course Marcus presents a major complication to them, though it never becomes a showdown for John to have to choose between his lover and his child.
There’s a mystery wending through the background. Some of the clues seem only marginally connected, but the author plays fair; it was all there to see once I took a second look. When Marcus gets caught in the grand finale, it does seem like an overreaction on the part of the villain, but it’s still heart-stopping for the reader.
Many things about this story are beautifully done: the organic development of John and Ryan’s relationship, touched but not soaked with introspection on both their parts, and the beginnings of the blending of a family. Ryan has a lovely relationship with John’s kids, part older brother and part second father, and you know he’s going to be an important part of their lives. The mystery wound through the novel, in places so subtly as to be nearly invisible, but still present. The climax of the story could not have unfolded without tragedy if Ryan had a different skill set or John trusted him less, so very well done.
The timeline seemed a bit awkward to me – while this was truly a rebuilding year for Ryan, whose life had been totally decimated in the fire, the actual time for healing, rehab, and getting into med school seemed truncated, but more doable if I didn’t think about it too hard. It also seemed very quick from “yes, I’m going to kiss him again” to “I love him” but given the friendship, that too is doable. John’s shotgun marriage as a teen seemed like a relic of another time, but I could believe he really loved her, too.
The secondary characters varied in their portrayals. Marcus was extremely vivid as a conflicted fifteen year old who had to cope with the revelation of his father’s new sexual identity on top of everything else. His sister Torey and the detective were also well developed given the size of their roles. The harpy ex and her overbearing new husband mouthed the expected lines and offered no surprises.
I enjoyed The Rebuilding Year greatly and read it at one sitting, going back later to collect details for reviewing. Kaje Harper tells a very smooth story, and I would recommend this book warmly. 4.5 marbles