I immensely enjoyed For Real, and for some reason thought it made sense to me to follow it up with the next novel in the series even though publishing order really has no bearing on reading order for romance novels, in general.
Usually, I don’t even look at romance novel covers because they have nothing to do with the book, but the Pansies cover has two men in a flower shop so it’s actually completely relevant to what is happening in the novel. I think this may have made it more difficult for me to get into Fen because the guy on the cover is not interesting looking or attractive to me. I’d like to think that I didn’t enjoy the book as much for reasons that are less superficial than, “Fen on the cover was kind of awkward looking so I couldn’t really get into him as a love interest” but fear that may be part of it.
It also might be that the novel was too realistic – I’m sure I say “oh god” more than I would like to admit or even realize during certain points of time, but when every “oh god” or moan is written out, it gets a bit, “jesus, you are super sensitive here, he barely touched you.”
So the other issue is that most of the novel is from Alfie’s perspective. There are three or four short letters strewn in from Fen to his mom where he talks about his feelings and emotions, but the perspective is heavily skewed towards Alfie’s view. I like Alfie; I had a hard time getting into Fen. The dual perspective in For Real was so perfect that I think I wanted that again; most female written M-F romances I have read have chapters from both perspectives, even if some don’t always keep it at an even balance and one character gets more focus.
Alfie was always one of the guys when he was growing up in his small northern town. He left and became an investment banker and while he has acquired many of the markers of wealth and success, at heart, he is still very much blue collar (except when it comes to wine). He is also gay though he didn’t realize it until two or three years before the onset of the novel. He still has some slightly outdated views about gender and relationships, and carries quite a bit of internalized homophobia with him. His parents know but haven’t exactly accepted that he is gay. The novel begins when Alfie is back in town for his best friend’s wedding, and accidentally outs himself to the whole party. After that, he needs to escape.
Surprisingly enough, he finds an attractive man at a nearby bar, and manages to pick him up despite the stranger’s odd hostility towards him. He acts very hot and cold throughout the entire exchange. It is only at the end of the encounter that Alfie realizes that Fen is James, the queer boy he bullied in middle/high school (or whatever the UK equivalent is since the ages didn’t quite line up with US high school graduation ages).
Alfie feels bad about how he treated Fen before but is also incredibly attracted to him. He knows he should keep his distance but he wants to make amends and also simply get to know Fen. Fen, on the other hand, recognizes that he once had a crush on his bully, and seeing those feeling returned fifteen years later is a bit of a mindfuck. Not to mention that Fen’s life has been in an uproar for the past year because of his mother’s death so he has no idea what he wants or what he should want. He definitely feels like he shouldn’t be getting involved with a good ole boy like Alfie and yet he keeps letting Alfie help him out, and get involved in his life.
I enjoyed how very different this novel was from the other Hall I read, and how he explores entirely different issues here, with the contrast between Fen, who has always known he was different, and Alfie who had a very traditional upbringing in relation to gender and is still trying to figure out how his new self lines up with his old values. Alfie would be difficult as a love interest in a M-F romance as well because his attitude towards women is a bit antiquated so Fen not only challenges how Alfie approaches his homosexuality but also makes Alfie reevaluate some of his other inherent attitudes and beliefs.
Pansies was very well written, but as I stated above, something about it wasn’t clicking for me. I definitely plan on trying Hall again since not every couple is going to work for everyone, and I could certainly see Fen and Alfie working more for someone else.