What Binds Us – A Review

What Binds Us - cover

Until a few weeks ago, I rarely read books labeled as “romance” novels, because I tend to think of them as books featuring a wild haired maiden who stows away on a pirate ship, poses as a cabin boy, and ends up with the captain after a big sword fight. Lately, I’ve read a few books labeled as “romance” specifically “Male/Male Romance” and been happily surprised by the fact that they are generally stories with a lot of passion as well as depth. Of the few I’ve read, I felt that “What Binds Us” deserved a full review.

When I asked for a recommendation my request was a novel with these factors: LGBT, Romance, Contemporary, without a lot of erotica elements. Based on this criteria, “What Binds Us” by Larry Benjamin was recommended to me by Rhonda Helms. It was perhaps the most perfect recommendation based on that criteria I could have ever imagined. Here is a brief outline about the story:

In 1977 with Thomas-Edward (whom is thankfully mainly referred to as T or Thomas throughout), a young man who falls in love with Donovan “Dondi” Whyte, his college roommate, whose beauty seems only to be matched by his familial wealth. The two men have a relationship, but, as with most wealthy/handsome characters, Thomas-Edward is found lacking, but the two remain friends. As T mourns the loss of this romance, and struggles to maintain a friendship with Dondi he finds his true love in Matthew, the brother of his roommate. The story continues past the “Happily Ever After” exploring the pains and struggles of caring for a loved one who eventually succumbs to AIDS, which was heartfelt, but felt like an odd way to resolve what was initially set-up to be more of a  love triangle story. This is probably because I feel like I’ve read/seen a lot of movies about AIDS in the 80’s. However, because we had come to love the characters so much for the first 2\3rds of the book it was very interesting to read. I was especially fond of the fact that there was never a moment of doubt in T’s love with Matthew. This, I felt, was an excellent departure from the conventional love triangles that are so popular in today’s market. I can imagine no reader being on “Team Dondi.” No one with a heart would think T would be happier with him than Matthew.

While the story was very important (the synopsis above is a sketch at best, the story spans many years and features many unforgettable characters not mentioned) what was truly breathtaking about this books was the prose. I am so jealous of Larry Benjamin’s way with words. I especially loved it when he’d spend 3 paragraphs or a page and a half to share a small story, a memory, that felt like a brief aside or footnote. Many of those were some of my favorite parts, because they gave you a real level of intimacy with the character, breaking deep into their mind and experiences. Later down the narrative road, you could feel the emotions coursing through the characters, because you knew them so well.  Benjamin’s skill with description (his art history minor really shows) is also truly breathtaking. For the most part the dialogue was good, and Benjamin excels in giving even ancillary characters truly unique voice. I never once asked “who’s talking?”

I think that I mainly enjoyed that this “romance” novel was more about “love” than anything else. The title says it all. Love is “what binds us.” and while physical love is a big portion of that, it is not as big as the rest. The use of sex in the novel was handled thoughtfully, taking us through both college sex as well as the sex lives of people who are happily coupled ( as well as unhappily).

This book proved to me, once again, that romance novels have more to them than sex and love. Many of them tell stories of whole lives, and the fleeting as well as unforgettable moments of love, loss, and everything inbetween. This novel is a superb read, and the perfect gift for anyone who thinks romance novels only feature maidens on pirate ships!

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