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Santino Hassell: Sunset Park

Santino Hassell--Sunset ParkThis is the second book of Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs series and of the three I’ve read so far, this is by far my favorite. I’ve only read it from cover to cover once, but I have gone back and read the last three chapters a few times and right now I’m skipping through the story from the beginning and stopping to smell some of the roses.

So, this book graces us with events as witnessed and experienced by both Raymond, the younger brother of Michael–the pov from the first book–and David, Michael’s fellow teacher. Raymond has graduated from all out loser to unemployed loser and David is still his adorably and annoyingly optimistic self. Michael wants to shack up with his childhood friend and the love of his life, Nunzio, and rent out their mother’s house. In his loser state, this is a major inconvenience for Raymond. He avoids the conversation as long as he can, but he can no longer play the guy no one has expectations for and is cornered into having it. Since Michael’s recovery, Raymond and David have grown close, suspiciously close for some of the people privy to their interactions, and he’s there for dooms day. As usual he sticks his nose further into things than Michael would like, but it all works out in the end. Meaning, what could have been a catastrophic explosion between the Rodriguez brothers ended with David helping Raymond with his résumé and offering to be his roommate for his second venture out into adulthood.

Raymond–born and raised in South Jamaica, Queens–is a rough speaking pothead who plays at being perpetually chill, but is really just a ball of doubtfully congruent emotions boiling under the surface. Between his Puerto Rican heritage–almost inextricably linked with Catholicism–his private nature–due in part to his wish not to be judged or saddled with expectations–his enduring inertia, and his high-strung brother, there has been and still exists an arsenal of complications keeping Raymond’s bicurious side nestled safely in some scarcely apparent corner of his identity. On the other hand, David–Connecticut-born–is a social butterfly, something of a narcissist, rather loose lipped, and a bit wayward with the drink. His accepting parents and liberal upbringing fostered pride in his identity as a gay man, but also blinded him to the myriad reasons beyond shame as to why other men don’t share his sensibilities regarding which side of the closet door they have their backs against. Quite the pair.

Raymond and David’s friendship persists through culture shock, casual flirting, gradually escalating make out sessions, real talk, and narrowly checked desires. David’s ever-present need to make sure everyone is happy, hale, and whole or understand why they aren’t does just as much to draw Raymond to him as it does to push him away. In his efforts, at turns, he can come off as selfish, endearing, insensitive, keenly aware, indecisive, or manipulative. Meanwhile, Raymond often seems like he’s along for the ride, yet trying not to be left behind. As he struggles to overcome long-held feelings of inadequacy and insouciance due to his previous all out loser status, he tries to navigate his feelings for David and their mutual interest in his bicuriosity. This game of chicken gets them nowhere but gridlock. Each nudging the assumed boundaries of the other and just before either of them cross over, they fall into a teasing and heartbreak-inducing pattern of “after you”–both afraid to make the jump from dalliance to definite. And, as if things weren’t difficult enough, friends, family, and associates from both sides take turns trying to help or hinder whatever progress the two seem to make.

Occasionally, Raymond charges ahead, but it is usually to his regret because David is far too oblivious at times of what his attempts to sort things out in his own way do to Raymond. Granted, he has the right make decisions that are in his own best interest, but doing so while holding onto his past and his present as he works out his issues is extremely selfish. Especially when the situation involves Caleb, David’s older, richer, stabler ex.

I hated David so much every time Caleb would appear. Screaming at the book, asking how he could be so stupid, why doesn’t he see how rude and unbelievable he’s being? Not just bringing Caleb up in conversation, but bringing him to his and Raymond’s apartment. But it was too late for me to even hope that Raymond would cut ties with him because I could see how far gone he was, how deep his feelings for David were, so it wasn’t going to happen. Goodness, seeing Raymond–with Michael and Nunzio’s words echoing; with everything he knew about Caleb hovering about him; even with thoughts of David’s undeniable hesitance and too common dismissal of Raymond’s previous attempts–seeing him push ahead, making his feelings clear… it was so painful.

Looking at things from beginning to end, David did love Raymond, but he was such an arse and he didn’t deserve him. But I wanted them to be together because Raymond wanted them to be together. I loved Raymond.

Unlike most tales of maturation, there wasn’t much need to dwell on who Raymond was, because that was never in question. Twenty-five seems a bit belated for a coming of age experience, but that’s what was going on behind the drama and in between the the cuddling and the kissing and the sucking and the fingering: Raymond was growing up. He was figuring out what he liked and what he liked most and those things made it easier to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He tried to move past his insecurities and, in doing so, opened himself up for new experiences. Unfortunately, new doesn’t always mean excitement or even enrichment. In Raymond’s case, it sometimes meant jealousy and rejection, and he admitted that he wore neither well.

I wanted to shake David. Just grip him up by his shoulders and, with much force, upset his equilibrium and possibly bring about a concussion. He knew, from the beginning, that Raymond was weak for him, that he let him in, made allowances. I know David was scared, wondering if the curiosity would wear off and he’d be stuck holding his heart in his hand once again. I get it. The feeling of being a secret, a source of shame or embarrassment is definitely not to be tolerated, but how could he not see that Raymond would never do that? When he actually wanted something, he went after it. Maybe his determination wasn’t as apparent as his (not so) perfect brother Michael’s, but it was there; if you were paying attention, you couldn’t miss it. For better or for worse, often against warnings and clear signs of trouble ahead, knowing effort would be required, he would still commit, if it was something–or someone–he wanted. And I ask why David couldn’t see, but he did though. It’s just that his fear and uncertainty usually won out.

Seeing them want each other and enjoy each other was so nice; they were really cute together, which made the betrayal and the hurt all the more difficult to endure.

I haven’t even gotten into the other characters or their relationships with them, and I won’t because you should just find out for yourself. However, in conclusion, I will say that this book was my favorite because of the multitude of factors Hassell weaved into every decision the characters made. It wasn’t enough to want someone or love someone or not care about what other people thought. The fact that they had a connection only took them so far. With so many things clamoring for their attention, it’s a wonder they ever had a moment of peace or even got a taste to know they wanted more. They didn’t have Michael and Nunzio’s 20 years or their even footing in society. They didn’t have similar experiences to help them find common ground. Honestly, everything thing they did have going for them was a double edged sword. Raymond had never been in love; what if what he felt for David wasn’t love either? And David didn’t have good experiences with straight guys or “uninitiated” bisexuals, so even if Raymond seemed different, it could have very well not been the case. But they still worked, worked it out, worked for it, in their own ways. This is my favorite because I generally feel that you shouldn’t have to endure so much BS to be happy with someone, but I was–in the end–okay with the mess they were in and I really believed in their happily ever after.

Now, as I mentioned in my review for the first book, Sutphin Boulevard, I had one issue, and that is Michael’s recovery. …And I realize this book isn’t about him, but there’s no mention of what he was doing to maintain. Raymond’s concern was expressed, but there’s no evidence that he was doing anything to prevent himself from falling again. Considering their family history, one and done doesn’t seem like it should be enough for Michael or even if it is, someone (probably Nunzio) should have adopted a “better safe than sorry” attitude and made him go for follow ups. Though, when I consider that this is all I have to complain about, I have to give props to Hassell for managing that.

Anyway, this was a great story and an awesome follow up for Sutphin Boulevard. I would love to read more about Raymond and David–the little glimpses of their ever after given in the third book, which follows Caleb, just wasn’t enough.

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