Flight Partners is the first book in the Lovers in Japan series by Artemis Fay. In this debut installment, we meet Andy and Kenneth who meet on a flight to Japan. Andy is an expat who has been teaching English conversation for three years, while Kenneth will be on his way to claiming the same once they land. They’re seatmates on the way and as a result of Andy’s fear of flights and Kenneth’s genuine concern for a fellow traveler, it doesn’t take long for them to get really cozy with each other. And I mean really.
Some conversation and a movie later and they found themselves under airline-issued blankets feeling and working each other up and striving to escalate things. Then, Andy was half a second away from administering felatio to Kenneth when the plane hit turbulence. And I have to tell you, that was the most hilarious moment throughout the entire story. To be interrupted by such a thing or to have such a thing interrupted by that… That’s exactly what they get. The thought of two strangers halfway getting it on in their seats on the plane just skeeves me out. So I didn’t start out with a high opinion of either one of them.
That made for quite an awkward situation. And from that we catch a glimpse of the real Andy or what we eventually learn is what he turned into: A neurotic, pessimistic, standoffish, and troublesome guy.
It was just a whim and even though they’re in the same profession, it’s not like he’ll see Kenneth again, right? So severing all ties mid-flight seems to Andy like a perfectly sensible thing to do. They disembark and Andy abandons Kenneth and catches his waiting ride back to his apartment. He settles in and hits the convenience store to replenish his stores. When he returns, he is greeted by Barb, his boss (residential accommodations come with the job) and his new roommate. Andy’s previous roommate quit though he didn’t know that until it was too late because he ignored his boss’ messages. There stands Kenneth.
Barb makes the introductions and departs. It doesn’t go off so well that first night between them, but they come clean that neither one of them are the type of people who do stuff like that and then Andy lays down the law. He shuts down any thoughts or pretenses that anything will happen between them. They’ll just be co-workers and leave it at that; he doesn’t want things to get awkward or difficult. Kenneth reluctantly agrees.
So much for Andy’s rules and so much for not being people who do things with strangers in public. Trading innuendos across the table–mostly Kenneth to Andy–and playing footsies under it. Also more Kenneth than Andy. All while sitting beside two of Andy’s friends, Rochelle and Gemma, who also teach English, though at different places. Seems like a bad idea, but I guess it wasn’t because they jetted back to their apartment to continue.
Andy’s new rule is no kissing. And I’ve never gotten this. Not that kissing and sex are inextricably linked, but in the way that people will have sex with someone but won’t kiss them because, according to Andy and too many other stories, it leads to attachment–this reasoning escapes me. Somehow, someones entire weight above you, driving into you, the scent of you and them mingling and enveloping you, you inhaling their pants and gasps, their sweat dripping down on you, it all feeling amazing will just be an exercise in body mechanics, but a kiss will break you? You don’t think being friends with someone, living in the same place with someone leads to attachment? I don’t understand why kissing is singled out as this holy grail of intimacy.
So they get to a point where they’re approaching 69 and then Kenneth pauses to ask Andy if he’s clean? I’m sorry? All of this, the plane ride, flirting back and forth, now two seconds before you’re about to place your mouth over his penis you’re going to ask him if he’s clean? And if he says no? You just gonna back up right then and there? I mean, you should, but seriously, like, what, you didn’t think about this before?
Kenneth tells us that the thing about Andy is that he’s different from his one-night stands and the few relationships that he’s had. They were what they were; not awesome, not terrible, but they didn’t have what he has with Andy and that’s chemistry. I’ve complained about this often enough that I suppose this could now be classified as a pet peeve. I don’t buy it. I don’t see their chemistry. I see two people who are sexually attracted to each other and one person who thinks it’s a bad idea to get too involved in that type of relationship and that’s it. I don’t see the chemistry that Kenneth is trying to convince me of. I don’t think he’d go so far as to say soulmates, but he’s alluding to a connection that’s far deeper than an anal canal. Just because Kenneth wakes up and makes tea for Andy (which is just considerate and attentive) and they don’t actually hate each other, doesn’t mean they have chemistry. At this point, I think it’s a stretch to even say that they get along. They hardly know each other and, sexual acts aside, spend a significant portion of the beginning of the book being at odds with each other. In one corner you have Andy sending conflicting signals as he pinballs between shutting down, trying to remain civil, and succumbing to lust and in the other there’s Kenneth congenially trying to win him over. In the midst of all of that, who has time to get properly acquainted?
So Andy goes back to distance between himself and Kenneth. Kenneth wants to go ahead and do more or be more but Andy is all nope. So they do this trading back and forth of Pocky and basically Kenneth is thanking Andy for helping him out on his first day. Andy gives it back to Kenneth with a note saying there was no need to thank him because it’s his job; trying to keep it all very impersonal. And the trade goes back and forth a few times and it gets ridiculous and Andy is immature and petty and Kenneth is persistent. Andy really should have just said to Kenneth: “Look, I appreciate the gesture, but I don’t want it to mean anything and I’d like you to not attempt to pursue anything with me. What happened on Sunday happened, but I don’t want it to happen again.” He had no problem setting the ground rules the first time, so I don’t see why he’s leaving notes and not being entirely straightforward about what he wants or doesn’t want. It just seems pointless; if he was able to do it before why not be clear about it again?
Seems it’s too much for Andy to just draw the line and say that he’s absolutely not getting into a relationship with Kenneth, so they agreed to become friends with benefits. No kissing, no cuddling, just sex or whatever. Really? Like, why would you do that to yourself? But that’s him; for reasons unknown (at this point), Andy can’t admit what he feels or how he wants things. He’d clearly stated that he wanted to get along with Kenneth, but that it would be hard to get along after they break up. So Kenneth proposed friends with benefits, saying if feelings are the problem to just leave them out. And that is clearly nonsense. How about you just hold off on any sort of intimacy until things are sorted out? Especially sexual intimacy which is guaranteed to screw things up. They obviously have feelings for each other, so just keeping it to sex is not going to work. If it was just sex and there were no feelings, truly no feelings, that’d be fine they could go and screw their brains out, but they both have feelings for each other. So you know how that goes.
What’s even worse, though, is that Kenneth doesn’t even want to be friends with benefits. I still don’t get their chemistry, like, I don’t see how they will be such a great couple. I’m still not feeling that from their personalities or their interactions. I just know that they want to have sex with each other and they have some sort of feelings for each other, but, you know, that’s the story or perhaps I’m just incapable of understanding that. As recent events have enlightened me.
Something else I don’t get is the extent to which Andy reacts to certain things. Not that he doesn’t have a reason to be upset or hurt about whatever happened, but he’s taking all of it out on Kenneth. And yet Kenneth still wants to be with him? Some relationships take work, sure, but I have yet to see any merit to Andy beyond his oral skills that would make him seem worth the effort. Why does Kenneth want to get involved with that nonsense? And “chemistry” is not the answer, it’s too vague a concept. If Andy can’t separate Kenneth from whatever happened to him in the past, why in the world would Kenneth want to pursue Andy? Like, he doesn’t even see him as a different person, he just sees him as (the potential to be) another one of what he’s already had. That is not even appealing.
Andy also has a rather unlikable arrogance about him particularly in regards to the way that he feels more at home in Japan rather than in the States. And he has these blanket opinions about his original home country versus his new home country. Making blanket statements like how he’s glad to be back in a country where people don’t dress like slobs. What does that even mean? I mean, I get what it means, but he doesn’t think that anyone in Japan is unkempt? It just doesn’t make sense even as a fleeting reason for distancing himself from the States. Now if it’s because he didn’t want to be anywhere near his ex, fine, whatever, but don’t start comparing the arbitrary aspects of two completely different cultures. And don’t lie to yourself thinking that no one in Japan dresses like a slob. Moreover, there’s just this sort of… “I’m better than others because I have assimilated in some way to this lifestyle” feeling to his assertions and I just don’t find that attractive at all.
So on their second try of the friends with benefits thing they end up in the shower and they’re about to have sex and Kenneth is going in uncovered save for the lube. I seriously don’t get why? By this point, Andy ‘s already brought up herpes in a conversation as it relates to someone he was involved with. Not that Andy has it, but the topic has been brought up, so wouldn’t you think that Kenneth would want to protect himself? Like if someone told you that their kid has a cold, it naturally leads your brain to consider if you have medication and supplies at home to care for yourself in the event of such a thing. And maybe you pick some up on the way home just in case. You know? Let’s not forget that he doesn’t actually know Andy, but no, no condoms come into play. I also think it’s odd considering how particular Andy can be that he isn’t the one doing at least the minimum as far as protection goes.
I get that people find different things about different people interesting to them but I seriously didn’t get what Kenneth saw in Andy. He said that he was amazing, sexy, and everything he dreamed of finding in Japan, but that just sounds like a load of s***. I don’t see how Andy is amazing other than the fact that his boss said that he’s awesome at what he does. Sexy? Okay, well, that is subjective. And “everything he dreamed of finding in Japan.” Really? I’m pretty sure all that Andy is wasn’t on the short list that Kenneth detailed at the beginning of the story, but whatever.
But the thing I’m most unsure about or just sort of turned off by is the way Kenneth viewed his sexuality. First he said that Andy was “a guy worth coming out for.” Whoa there, buddy. Why don’t we just put on the brakes, dude? I know there are uncountable reasons for coming out, but I can’t get behind coming out for someone else. Come out for yourself, on your own terms. Come out because you are ready to present yourself as who you understand yourself to be. Not because of your attachment to someone else. Well, perhaps if you’re trying to be a role model for your child or something, but even then, they should also learn that people have their own timetables and that’s okay.
Second, what the heck did Kenneth mean when he said that he never thought it would happen to a bi guy like him? It being falling for a man. Okay, what? That is what being bi is about. Not specifically a man, but wherever your interests happen to lie, you could possibly fall for someone who falls into those categories. I’d like to blame all of this on him being young (22) and naive, but the onus is on Fay. How does she view bi/sexuality?
Anyway, apart from dealing with whether or not Andy was hot or cold on any given day, both guys had their own side quests to complete. Kenneth is biracial with one half of his ancestry being Japanese. One of the things he wanted to do while he was in Japan was visit his paternal grandmother’s family. His main hurdle here was that he wasn’t quite fluent in language of the land, so he enlisted Andy to help. As for Andy, when he went back to the States during his vacation, it was to attend his ex’s wedding for which he was the best man. But an email exchange between them makes it clear that they have a terrible relationship. David is even more immature than Andy. I don’t know what Andy’s deal is; he seems, at least in intention, perfectly fine with setting boundaries with Kenneth, but David, his ex… I don’t know why he maintains a relationship with him. It would never pass for healthy. Though I don’t think David cheated, the person that he married was a friend that Andy introduced David to. The story doesn’t go into the particulars of that aspect of their history, but it seems like Andy got the short end of the stick regardless.
While not utterly crucial, Kenneth’s side quest is a significant part of his story and one of the ways that he relates to or interacts with people. On the other hand, beyond shortening the word count, Andy’s relationship with David and all the dialogue and narration that went with it, could be removed from the book and not affect anything.
What was crucial was that, throughout the story there was much talk about Andy’s roommate situation. In addition to questions from a variety of parties directed to both Andy and Kenneth about how they are getting along, Kenneth happened upon an assortment of asides, friendly warnings, and straight up gossip about Andy’s relationships with his previous roommates. Andy was not a favored person amongst the expats that got together every now and then. He had a string of roommates since he joined his company and most of them didn’t work out so well. Depending on how you count, there were about three or four different versions of the truth, but being the common denominator, only Andy knew the whole of it. Kenneth tried to line up everything with what he knew of and heard from Andy and he came up short. And this is where things start coming together, albeit a bit forced. Rather, I should say that I could kind of see the orchestration of it all, which is interesting once you finish a story, but kind of dulls the experience while you’re reading.
All of that said, the big aha moment came around nicely and it was one of the things the book did well in pacing and maintaining the thread. But everything surrounding it almost seemed superfluous by comparison. I never bought their chemistry, but that’s not a deal breaker for me. I respect that they felt something for each other and wanted to be with each other. Every love isn’t required to be this once in a lifetime thing that can only exist between soulmates. If they’re happy and they feel safe and loved, that’s all the matters. And with that in mind, the moments just before and following the reveal made it easy for me to see a relationship between them. Not necessarily romantic but a relationship nonetheless. I could see the way they work with each other. Like, I can’t even call it friendship; it’s just two people who I can understand care about each other, one a little less inhibited than the other for certain reasons. But I can understand how the ending came about that from that point. Though not from the beginning of the story because it wasn’t, for me, a building up of a relationship. What happened from the beginning until the point that I could see what was between them was a whole bunch of chapters too long for what the author intended. I’m sure Fay wanted me to believe in whatever they had much much earlier, but it just didn’t happen. A lot of it didn’t make sense, even in retrospect. After the reveal, I still thought that it was a lot of time wasted with nonsense.
As is my habit, I talked-to text this read, but eventually I reached a point at which I just stopped commenting and simply experienced the story. Once I did that–somewhere between 60%-70% of the way through–I was able to see the story beyond its flaws. I can’t say that the end justified the means, but when I finally finished the story, I didn’t hate it. I wanted to like it because I didn’t want to dislike it. I wanted to like it because I was asked by the author to review it. But they wanted an honest review and honestly, I think the story was just OK.
Looking at it as a whole, there is definitely a story here: A pessimist with painful past meets an optimist with hope for the future and, through their bonding, the pessimist learns to trust himself again. That’s essentially what the story is about. It wasn’t about Andy pushing past his trauma and learning to trust Kenneth and falling in love. It was Andy learning to trust the decisions he made regardless of factors he couldn’t control and learning how and when to let go. He’d already gotten past what happened, but he was still dragging it behind him. And he trusted Kenneth from day one, but he was afraid to because he didn’t want to go down the road that turned him into the person we met at the beginning of the story. There is no guarantee that Kenneth won’t be a jerk, and even if he becomes one, that’s not Andy’s problem, because Andy won’t let someone else control his life anymore.
Stories are often about how people grow and change, but this story ended with them being pretty much the same as page one. It’s not a bad thing at all. For me, anyway, it shows that not every person needs to change; sometimes it’s really just their circumstances that need a face lift. And in this story’s case that was achieved by Andy letting go and Kenneth holding on.
So, I got all of that, you know, it’s a solid idea, it’s just that a lot of the stuff that it took to turn that paragraph into a novel wasn’t grounded enough and often didn’t ring true.
Finally, two things about the book as a book. First, with the lexicon of casual conversation changing with every new meme, in even five years, this book will be dated. There were a number of terms used in the first half of the book that just stood out as very trendy to me. Also, the vocab assumed a lot of the reader and which current slang and colloquialisms they would be familiar with and I’m not even including the Japanese terms that made cameo appearances between the expats. I’m not saying that every story needs to be timeless; it was just something I noticed and the was made even more apparent when it all but disappeared in the latter half of the story.
Second. This was written in first-person, each section was headed by whose POV you were reading. And I just wish that there was a larger space between the end of one section and the heading of the next because even though I read the name in the heading, I would forget and at just over 25% of the way through, I still couldn’t easily determine who was speaking. Their voices–Kenneth and Andy’s–weren’t distinct enough at that point. When they spoke to each other, it was easy to figure out, but some of their inner monologues were of a similar tone, so I had to make an effort to remember or get in the habit of swiping back a page or two. So a larger space between the end of one section and the heading of another would be a visual cue that I am switching and not just relying on the name in the heading for the next section. In the same way that I read a period as being the end of the sentence, more space or even some kind of image marker for a new section would be good, but just having the name with no significant line break between the two isn’t sufficient when the characters haven’t come into their own quite yet. I did eventually realize the primary difference between their inner monologues. Andy’s were pessimistic, self-deprecating, and sarcastic whereas Kenneth’s were hopeful, determined, and confused.
I try not to take every read so seriously, but it is hard for me. It’s one of the reasons I tend to bypass fluff. And because of that (and other reasons) I may not be the best person to judge some titles. However, this story does have some merit and I don’t feel like I completely wasted my time reading it. I know this will hit the spot for someone less stodgy than me.