Aqua Follies by Liv Rancourt
Rating: 5 Stars
Publisher: Liv Rancourt
Genre: Historical/Retro Gay Romance
Tags: 1950’s Period, Romance, Seattle Muso and Midwest Boy, Opposites Attract
Length: 220 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
The 1950s. Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.
Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.
From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because good things might happen, but the timing has to be right. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.
The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?
When I was a young girl, just before I was a teenager – we’re talking the sixties – I had an adult cousin who lived with his mother, my aunt. I remember the women in the family talking and speculating, often at family get-togethers, about why Don hadn’t settled down with some nice girl. I also remember having a feeling that it wasn’t a nice girl he wanted. Don stayed devoted to his mother until she died because, the reality was, he chose not to marry any girl, and he couldn’t settle down with some nice guy. Not everyone then, not even now, was able to be so definite. Not everyone had a widowed mother who was really happy to have their son stay at home and look after them until the day they died. Some time when I was in my twenties, my mother told me that Don had bought a unit in Bondi and, fancy this, moved in with a man. I also recall not being the slightest bit surprised but I did think how sad it was that my cousin, who was well into his forties when he finally had freedom, had to hide who he was for so long, and only after his mother died could he eventually grab some happiness.
He snugged her closer to his side. He’d start his new job, they’d get hitched, he’d buy the house, and she’d give him babies. More importantly, the wedding would give his parents something to be happy about.
The feeling of dread wedged under his sternum had more to do with nerves than anything else.
I guess that leads me into Aqua Follies. Especially in regard to Russell Haunreiter who is twenty three and has just finished law school and is helping out his Aunt Maude on the Aqua Dears tour. He’s shut down about anything other than settling into a ‘normal’ married life with his girl Susie, complete with children, even though it doesn’t feel exciting or right to him. But that’s what men of that era did, especially men from Red Wing, Minnesota. Especially when the brother he shared his bedroom with growing up is killed in the Korean War, leaving a sad mother and a son with an extra sense of responsibility. So when Russell meets a sexy and fresh trumpet player, Skip, who sets desires in motion, he can’t help but become hooked – but he also can’t let that happen. It feels right… but its wrong. So while slowly giving in to his physical desires, intellectually he can’t allow himself to believe Skip is anything more than a week of secret flirtation and sex before he finishes the Aqua Dears tour and marries the girl he’s bought a ring for. This makes Russell somewhat bipolar in his reactions to Skip – he can be inquisitive, to a degree, passionate in the bedroom, but before and after he vacillates between caring for Skip and squashing those feelings, disliking himself and Skip for the attraction and for giving in. It can translate into Russell appearing moody as he struggles with inner turmoil. It helps to understand the times and to understand the resultant ingrained beliefs.
Sometimes good old Fate, with a bit of help, has a way of conspiring against the best laid plans of mice and men. One of the Aqua Dears injures herself, then Susie throws a spanner in the works by taking off before the Detroit leg of the tour. Russell has to stay behind in Seattle for the hospitalised Phyllis and help find Susie to (hopefully) get her back on tour. It buys him some more time with Skip, who gladly opens his small apartment, life, and his heart to the gorgeous and strong yet virginal boy from the Midwest.
Skip, aka Lawrence Johansen, is a trumpet player for bands in and around Seattle. Playing trumpet for the 55 Sea Follies is a gift when he first spots a strapping ‘sea god’ working with the touring show. Skip has had a very different upbringing in Seattle to Russell in Red Wing, and he has no illusions he’s anything but attracted to men. For the era he’s (carefully) out, which means he’s sexually experienced and knows a casually placed smile here and there, a look, a lingering handshake might land someone interested in spending a bit of time with him. He has friends who dress in drag and he goes to bars where there are men with the same inclinations and desires, or who are at least sympathetic. He can tell Russell is interested in him, but how much will it translate into more than just a fleeting pass?
He just hoped Russell would agree to do something—anything—after tomorrow night’s show. Lou was going to kill him, but Skip couldn’t help his feelings. As long as he stayed clear of the law, he was willing to roll the dice.
Skip has his evil day job but it’s music where his passion lies. On top of working at Boeing and playing in bands, his mother is being treated at Firbank for Tuberculosis and he visits her regularly. They’re close and she knows he likes men. She’s long been a single mum, she used to sing in nightclubs as well as working her real job to support them both and pay for Skip’s music lessons before TB. I liked Skip’s mum. She’s not on page much but she adds great dimension when she is.
“What nice manners you have.” She took his hand more firmly, shot a glance at Skip. “He’s a real gentleman, Skippy. And so handsome too.”
“Mother.” Skip couldn’t stifle the heat rising in his cheeks. “He’s standing right there.”
It’s hard to write a full review of this book because it’s quite character, romance and atmosphere driven, with and an excellent backdrop of 1950’s life in general, especially in Seattle. There’s been a fair degree of research and brainstorming that has gone into writing this book and it’s incredibly authentic. To read Aqua Follies is to believably step back in time. Everything from the music of the era, the cars, the sayings, the clothes, the hair, to a fear of being ‘deviant’ that is tangible. Men jumping because of a sudden noise when they are a bit too close. Watching out for neighbours who might see them snatching a quick kiss from another man. Being more than mindful of the cops who look for them because they know some of the places they might frequent, and they could be bastards for many reasons, especially when Skip is already on one of the local cop’s radar. Then there are the friends who are like, or better than, family. And the sad acceptance of never being able to show your feelings for someone you love, if you were lucky enough to find them in the first place, but stealing what you can.
This an excellent piece of writing and Aqua Follies has cemented Liv Rancourt as a must-read author for me from here on in. It further backs-up the quality of writing I’ve discovered in the Hours of the Night series, written as a co-write with Irene Preston, and the sassy, sensitive and sublime Change of Heart, which is an offshoot of that universe but written solely by Ms Rancourt. In Aqua Follies, as in all of these books I’ve mentioned, the main characters are (thankfully) not without some flaws or concerns, but mostly they are unique and good people with strong, clearly defined voices. I ran the gamut of emotions with Russell as he understandably struggled with who he was. I felt deeply for Skip who allowed himself to fall for a man who may never have reciprocated his feelings. I wasn’t sure Russell would be worthy of Skip, but he is, he absolutely is. Skip and Russell fed off one another with such a building emotion that I fell hopefully in love with both men before book’s end. While Aqua Follies is a self-contained book there is a thread I’d personally like to see fully stitched up, and there is room for Skip and Russell to further cement their relationship as a day-to-day couple. I have my fingers crossed for at least one more book on this pair.
Highly recommended reading for those who love gay historical or retro books that are realistic but predominantly upbeat, that are well researched and interesting, well written, and full of depth. Aqua Follies contains wonderful characters, a great backdrop with a keen sense of the time and place, and it’s all set perfectly within a charming and sultry romance. 5 Stars!
ARC supplied in return for an honest review