Rating: 9/10 Title: Better
Author: Jaime Samms
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Summary (by author): Jesse has had a rough time with love; maybe too rough to take another chance, but when Aadon comes along, he thinks maybe there’s hope. When the past comes calling, Jesse has to decide just what it is he wants now, and whether or not he’s as close to recovery as he thought.
My review: Truth. That is what sucks me into a story. Intricate plots and clever word turns galore can certainly keep me reading a work, but if it is lacking an essential sense of truth at its core, I will generally never pick up a novel or a short story for a second read. A work without that underlying truth is a work that doesn’t grasp me and make want me to read more, be it more of the characters or more of the author. For me, truth is what captures me.
This 14,000 word short story (basically, a free novella) by Jaime Samms is full of truth, which makes it a fascinating read and an engrossing character study of a broken person who honestly wants to become whole again. There is a depth of character here that is captivating. Is it a perfect story? No. I have my quibbles, though they be minor, but there is so much here that is right on target, that the imperfections are easily dismissed.
Jesse is that broken person at the center of our story. An Anthropology student, he works in the University library where his long hours are passed by admiring Aadon, a pre-law student whom Jesse is certain is out of his league. At first, this piece seems like it will be a simple boy meets hot boy, boy is surprised to get hot boy, boy and hot boy take a role in the hay together. But then the author begins to slowly weave in the mystery as to why Jesse feels he’ll never measure up to Aadon’s hotness through interior monolog and prodding from Jesse’s friend, Sarah, who knows his past and is gently trying to coax him beyond it. It turns out, however, that Aadon has had his eye on Jesse, and therein lies the conflict for our “hero.” Is this guy too good to be true? He seems like it Is Jesse merely heading down a dangerous road he’s traversed before? Or is he the genuine article he appears to be? That about as much of the plot that I’ll reveal here.
The first kudo I have to give to the author is for sustaining the “what is the dark secret” aspect of the piece. We’re not privy to the extent of damage done to Jesse until more than 2/3rds into the story, which is a difficult thing pull off without making the character come off a whining, weak person. The author does it well, giving us enough hints to keep us interested, but not so many as to piss us off into saying, “Ok, so what is the fricking deal already?” The author never manipulates us, never uses tricks. The result is that we as readers fall easily into Jesse’s mind, seeing both his strength to move on and the pain that he struggles against. We, like Jesse, keep assessing this Aadon who may be a good as he seems, or may have sinister motives at his core. The story isn’t a mystery, but the author does keep us wondering right along with the main character.
Aadon is the second kudo I want to give to the author. At first, he seems as if he will be a standard pretty-boy, a confident bed-post notcher who has only one thing on his mind, but then we see subtle nuances as he becomes aware that there is some type of baggage Jesse is carrying around with him. But is that all an act to get what he ultimately wants? Jesse sometimes thinks that; and sometimes he thinks that Aadon is exactly who he needs to get beyond his past. Again, we as readers bounce back and forth with Jesse in our appraisal of this, a feat that leaves us unnerved and suspiciously hopeful.
But where the story excels the most is once Jesse’s secret is revealed. Inner monologues take on a depth that rings utterly and fascinatingly true, actions that seemed trivial earlier take on added significance. We understand Jesse’s doubts, his conflict between wanting to move forward and feeling held prisoner by his past. His desire to see that justice is done but his need to put all of what came before permanently away. His own perceived responsibility for what had happened to him years ago. It is this truth that makes us root for Jesse, feel as trapped as he does by things that were done to him. The story ends on a possibly-happy ending, which is only fitting given the questions raise during the piece.
OK, so my quibbles with the piece? They are all fairly minor, none rising to the level of distraction from the core elements. There are times when I had to stop and go “Wait…who said that?” But that, I think, is more a question of layout than anything else. As far as characters, Jesse’s friend Sarah verges on being a typical “fag-hag” role. The character is likeable and there are some nice, subtle shades to her, but I wanted to see a little more depth there because she interested me as a character. The character of Leo, essentially a mutual friend of Leo and Jesse, has a girlfriend in one scene, which character never really speaks or has any significant interaction with the rest of the characters. Since she never went anywhere, I didn’t really see the need for her. I would have preferred to have seen more of Leo. And there are times when I wished the author had lingered more on important moments. One in particular was when Jesse finally reveals himself (physically, I mean) to Aadon, which is a really important, emotionally charged moment that felt just slightly rushed. As far as Aadon goes, there was only one moment that felt a little artificial and that is the reveal as to why he had basically run out of the room when Jesse revealed himself. It felt this fact of Aadon’s own life was added, perhaps to soften the reader’s reaction to his bolting from the room. It was a softening that I didn’t really feel was needed, and Aadon trying to explain his understandable reaction would have felt more right to me.
The bottom line: this is a exceptionally, well thought out, well executed story of love and loss and a desire to heal that hits all the right notes, giving true insight to those whose lives have been damaged. As for Aadon? Is he really as good as he seems? I dunno…but then I’m a jaded old sod.