I loved basically everything about the story in Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler’s Dead Ringer. This is not a story about two generically hot people who Clash Because Plot. It’s okay that some people like that, but the fact that This Wasn’t That made it way more interesting for me. This is also the type of story where you can skim the sex scenes if you’re not in the mood for them and still have an entire story left to enjoy.
It’s about two young men pushed into some very rotten corners by life: Brandon because of the toxic Christian homophobic parents who taught him to think he was worthless and then kicked him out (we don’t have to witness their shit on the page–which is a good authorial choice–just its aftermath as he deals with peeling away nineteen years of emotional scabs), and Percy, whose parents think his disability means they have the right to treat him like a toddler or like he has no right to an adult existence.
They meet because Percy has a huge adoring fanboy obsession with the dead movie-star grandfather Brandon resembles, and pretends to be, at an escort service for celebrity lookalikes. (This is basically James Dean although obviously it’s someone made up in the book so he could have his own backstory and family.) Brandon has a lot of issues with his grandfather, and he learns more and more about him with every few dozen pages that change his approach not only to the man but to his own life.
Percy’s actual villain comes in the form of a horrifying hired caregiver, who freaked me out every second she was on the page. Kudos to the authors both for exposing this kind of abusive, controlling ablist abuse and also for not having Percy be easy to gaslight. It was actually a huge relief as a reader to see him standing up to her most of the times she lied to him or said his friends were faking their affection to be PC, rather than instantly believing her as so many other stories might.
I’ve lost a bunch of family in recent years, and this made Brandon’s coping with the recent loss of the grandmother who stepped in and became his mother really resonate with me. I guess part of my healing process is reading about other people’s healing processes?
It’s not really my place as a civilian to say this but from hearing sex workers talk about problematic representation I can say that it was also a relief that Brandon does not leave the business when he and Percy become an item. I can also say that Brandon’s experiences–some clients are baffling just as with any other business, some clients are abusive just as with any other business, some clients are great to work with, some clients are annoying–match up with the sex worker blogs that I read.
I’m trying to figure out how I knew Brandon’s boss at the escort service was a trans woman, but anyway, she seemed cool and confident and there wasn’t the least bit of Tragic Trope about her, either. (Warning that the book does contain some pretty heavy references to Tragic Queers, but only in reference to the 1950’s and cis men.) There are some pretty cool cis lady characters, too.
This was a satisfying read while still containing enough curves in the road that it wasn’t too predictable, and just as much about Brandon clawing his way out of a bad outlook (and to a lesser extent, Percy getting free of his ablist environment) as it is about their romance. The two leading men had a lot of angst to overcome, but honestly, I think this is the kind of book that could have contained a lot more upsetting stuff than it did, and I was really glad that it didn’t. I don’t read queer lit to stress myself out. I’d rather watch us overcoming our problems, shredding our problems, and then feeding them to hungry cats–and then coming out into the sunlight covered in glitter.