I was loaned J.L. Merrow’s contemporary romance Muscling Through by my friend Katie after reading her review of the book. She really liked the story and gave it a positive appraisal. Mine will be less so. It was a quick read, which is good, and I would be delighted to read a M/M romance novel well done, but Muscling Through is not that book.
Al and Larry, bearers of the two least romance-novel-sounding names of all time, meet when Al helps a very drunk and nervous Larry home from a bar. Larry is soused enough, and Al big and intimidating enough, to think he is being threatened in some way. This is, of course, not the case which is why the story is a Meet Cute and not a Call Cops. The novella is told entirely from the perspective of Al, including Larry’s initial terrified reaction to him. He is a giant lug who works in Cambridge renting out boats for punting on the Cam. Larry is an art history professor at the university. J.L. Merrow took the opposites attract trope and stretched it like taffy to accommodate the story. Al may be a very nice, but the man is a different sort of hero.
“some comedy repeat on Dave. I like the repeats ’cause it’s easier to get the jokes the second time.”
“We started our honeymoon in Florence, which is this really pretty town in Italy. That’s in Europe.”
Let’s break the second quote down: Al explains that one of the most famous cities in the world is in Italy. Then, this man from the U.K., a part of the European Union, clarifies that Italy is in Europe in case that is new information for the reader and suggesting it might have been new information for him as well. That represents a lot issues and the whole novella is the same. Al misunderstands people, misreads or plain misses context clues, so that by telling the story exclusively from Al’s perspective, Merrow limits the novella as well.
I spent Muscling Through trying to figure out to what degree Al was not very bright or actually challenged. Then I wondered if I was a horrible person for thinking that Al’s limitations made the romance unrealistic. (Yes, I am.) Was Larry taking advantage of Al in some way? (Clearly not.) Who wouldn’t want to date a human teddy bear? Why couldn’t Larry find Al attractive beyond a physical relationship? How big of a monster am I? Am I going straight to Hell? Is there some way I can turn this around to make it all the fault of the author so as to avoid feeling guilty or like an insensitive cow?
Maybe Merrow was aiming for Joey Tribbiani territory – not so bright, but a sweet and lovely guy – and overshot, but it disrupted the entire reading experience for me. I suspect that falling in love in spite of challenges might be the point of Muscling Through; to show love through one person’s eyes as that is the way we see it in our own relationships, but I am just not enough of a mensch to get past Al’s limited viewpoint. My internal dialogue became a political debate about whether his intellectual limitations crossed some undefinable line into potential exploitation or diminished decision-making capacity. If the reader had been given Larry’s viewpoint, it might have made more sense, but I was left with only Al to go on and he was not a successful narrator, but a confused one.