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Lenore

I'm a hopeful cynic.

What Binds Us - Larry  Benjamin What Binds Us is more a gay historical drama than an m/m romance. There is a certain degree of romance but it isn't what drives the narrative. At least it didn't feel like that to me. So, to that extend, the blurb isn't very indicative of the plot.This is essentially Dondi's story as told by his ex-lover and best friend Thomas-Edward. I dare say it's the story as Thomas experienced it. The first person POV adds to that effect.The book is divided into three parts: Sunrise, Eclipse, and Sunset and, as early as in the Prologue, we learn that this is a collection of "Memories of a love lost and a love found. Memories of a life shared and a life lost" and that there's tragedy ahead: "I must write it all down—quickly, before it leaves me. Like he did. Gone too soon."So. It's the late seventies, and the two meet in college (they're roommates), Thomas a quiet middle class black guy from New Jersey, Dondi a loud and theatrical bon viveur, who uses his wealth to enjoy life to the fullest. Here's Thomas' first impression of Dondi: "He seemed about my age, but while I felt barely begun, he seemed complete, an epilogue to a fantastic story." Dondi shows Thomas how life should be lived, clubbing, shopping, drinking, smoking pot. "Dondi became my guide, my Virgil, on my personal odyssey of self-discovery. (It was Homer, by the way; the one who wrote the Odyssey. Virgil wrote the Aeneid.)At a certain point they become lovers, Thomas having almost instantly fallen in love with Dondi. But it doesn't last, because Dondi doesn't believe in love, he isn't the "forever-and-always, you-for-me and me-for-you-only" kind of guy. They remain roommates though and their relationship keeps evolving. Dondi keeps falling in love (his version of it, anyway) moving from one guy to the other, from an unnamed lad with sun-bleached hair to the son of his Latin professor to the next random guy in the endless line of his conquests. But Thomas remains the person Dondi considers his only true friend, the only constant in his extravagant lifestyle.Then Dondi asks Thomas to spend the summer with him and his family at their summer house in Long Island and Thomas meets Matthew, Dondi's younger brother. They first become inseparable, and then they fall madly in love. And they're the real thing. If Dondi was an epilogue, Matthew was a prologue, a promise waiting to be kept. He seemed about to begin. He seemed to be waiting for something. I asked him once, years later, what he’d been waiting for. He surprised me by answering simply, “You.” and "Matthew was like the afterimage from staring at the sun too long. If Dondi was the sun, Matthew was cool water or the dark side of the moon." Thomas and Matthew remain together and, over the years, the reader sees how their lives span around Dondi.In the very first paragraph of the book, the author informs us of his main character's love for F. Scott Fitzgerald. And there were quite a few elements that reminded me of The Great Gatsby, apart from the writing itself in the first half of the book, especially the parts describing the hot summers spent in Aurora, Dondi's family's summer house. The East and the West Claw reminded me of Gatsby's East and West Eggs. The colours gold, green, white, blue. The green light that represents the Aurora, the old established money, as seen from across the bay, from Dondi's modern million-dollar mansion. The car, symbolising material wealth, and at the same time becoming an instrument of death and destruction. The presence (or absence) of God in the novel. It's been some time since I last enjoyed The Great Gatsby so I'm sure there are other things I didn't notice. Also, I can't really judge whether Mr Benjamin's Fitzgeraldisms are successful, I noticed them though and that should say something.I want to particularly highlight the contribution of the secondary characters in the novel. I usually have trouble remembering them but here I can name each and every one of them. The ones I found the most intriguing were Mrs Whyte, the "laminated beauty with the steel-gray eyes", Silent Eddie, the college friend who loved walking around with nothing but a towel on, and Portia, housekeeper extraordinaire.Also, despite the feeling of impending doom I had while reading this, there were parts that made me smile or even laugh out loud. Dondi's reply to Thomas when the latter asks him if he's had gonorrhea before: "Darling, I've had the clap so many times, it's now applause." Or Portia's deadpan comments: "Leonardo arrived unexpectedly one day for a visit. Portia answered the door. He wore an oversized trench coat of black plastic and a matching fedora, also of black plastic. Black wraparound sunglasses completed the blackout of his person. "Excuse me," Portia inquired huskily, after he'd introduced himself, "but is it raining toxic waste outside?"There are various evocative references, capturing the popular culture of the era, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the movies Alien, Rocky 2 and The Empire Strikes Back or TV shows like Dynasty or artists like Billy Joel, Randy Crawford, The Village People, Gloria Gaynor and Wham.Regarding the author's writing style. Mr Benjamin calls himself a wordsmith and he certainly is one. Passages like this one "He shed his old life as easily as a favorite shirt grown too small, stretching his arms and tugging at the sleeves of his new life, admiring the fit" speak volumes of his ability with the English language. But it was that same ability that tired me somewhat and made the story feel unnecessarily "heavy". I found that there were too many similes and analogies in the book; so many that the author could have used them to embellish three stories instead of just this one. …like a plague of locusts, like an avenging angel, like foul perfume, like butter in a microwave, like the moon hiding behind a cloud, like salt, like a midnight sun, like desire steeped in ice, like an unchecked malignancy, like a swift current that kept washing him out to sea, like the parting of clouds, yawned like a wound, like a footnote on the pages of our life, as an old winter coat, as if in the grasp of rigor mortis, as fragile as a dream, black as a raven’s wing…The detailed descriptions of people and places, especially the Aurora and its furniture, curtains, art, china, carpets, etc., also challenged my determination not to skim. But the pace was pretty fast so they weren't very tiring.The last one third of the book is both its strongest and its weakest part. The strongest because the feelings, emotions and reactions of the characters came across quite vividly and the weakest because at certain points I felt I was being emotionally manipulated through particular triggers commonly used in tearjerkers to evoke emotion. What saved the day for me were particular images, especially of Dondi, skillfully built in the story and restoring balance.All in all this was definitely an interesting read, a well set-up story by an author who has much to tell. I will keep an eye out for Mr Benjamin's future work.Carina Press kindly provided me with an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley.com in exchange for an honest review