This book surprised me. Ostensibly it’s a contemporary LGBTQ romance, but I’ve read quite a few m/m romance novels and this one stands out, in a good way.
Riven is about two musicians, Theo and Caleb, falling in love. Theo is a 25(ish) year-old rock star, the lead singer and songwriter of a popular rock band. Theo loves music but hates everything about being a rock star- his bandmates were a group long before he showed up and while they need him to be successful, they resent his presence in the band. When we meet Theo he’s wrapping up a 4 month tour and he is frayed, exhausted, and miserable. His bandmates convince him to extend the tour another month and give him two days home in NYC as a break before they go back on the road. While wandering through Brooklyn late on the first night, Theo hears music coming out of a bar. Drawn to it, he goes inside and finds Caleb playing guitar, mostly to himself, in the empty bar. Caleb is a talented 36 year-old blues musician who has had a respectable career as a session/touring musician and put out three well-received albums. While never attaining anything close to Theo’s level of fame, Caleb is a “musician’s musician.” The two meet, take a two hour walk across the Brooklyn Bridge where they talk about music and touring and life, and then they spend the night together. In the morning, Caleb is gone. Once Theo’s second tour leg is finally over, he heads to upstate New York to track down Caleb and this story turns into something else.
Because while this is a romance, it’s really a story about recovery. Caleb is recently fresh from his fourth stint in rehab, battling a pretty severe heroin addiction. Caleb has never maintained sobriety longer than a few months, always relapsing once back on the road playing in bars and clubs and around the same people and the same temptations. When we meet him, he’s been white-knuckling through a year of sobriety, his longest ever, by withdrawing to a small farmhouse in upstate New York and leaving everything about his old life behind. He gardens and plays guitar and isolated himself. Sometimes he has to push the front of the couch against the wall and sleep in the caged space because climbing over the back of the couch is harder than climbing out of bed and maybe that little impediment will keep him from driving off the farm and seeking a fix. Sometimes he has to call his best friend to come take his truck so he can’t leave; when things are really hard, sometimes he has to call his best friend to come take his shoes too. While this sounds melodramatic as hell, it isn’t. We spend enough time with Caleb to see just how much he struggles to stay sober, how much fear he has that he will relapse again, and we understand completely why he feels that music and the music industry aren’t healthy for him. As far as obstacles in the path of true love, this is a pretty formidable one. There aren’t easy solutions or quick resolutions in this story. There’s never a doubt that Caleb and Theo are great together or that they feel deeply for each other. The issue, rather, is whether being in any relationship is healthy for Caleb, never mind a relationship with a rock star.
The novel is told in alternating points of view, and both characters…I really loved them both. Theo is lovely and patient and vulnerable, and while it can be a drag to listen to famous people complain about fame, Theo’s feelings towards his fame make sense. Caleb is scared and damaged and lonely, and together they break your heart in the best way.
Roan Parrish has plotted this book extremely well, and the writing and editing is sharp. It’s very definitely a romance, but it also felt like so much more than that. Really, it’s a good piece of fiction that happens to have a pretty sweeping romance at the center, but the bulk of the book takes place at the margins, where two men who have been just surviving build up the courage to try and start living.
*Like so many romance novels, this cover is trash. Not sure who that guy is supposed to be since he is clearly not either main character as described.