Then the Stars Fall, Brandon Witt
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Gay Romance
Tags: Gay/Bi, Grief, Family/Children, Bible Belt Small Town, Religious Undertones
Length: 350 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
**LONG SORT OF SPOILERISH REVIEW**
The death of his wife four years earlier left Travis Bennett a shell of the man he used to be. With his dog by his side, Travis raises his three children, manages his business, and works as a ranch hand. But every day, every minute, is an aching emptiness.
Wesley Ryan has fond memories of the small Ozark town of El Dorado. Seeing it as a safe place to put his failed relationships behind him, Wesley moves into his grandparents’ old home and takes over the local veterinary clinic. An early morning visit from Travis and his dog stirs feelings that Wesley seeks to push away—the last thing he needs is to fall for a man with baggage and three kids as part of the package.
Life, it seems, has other plans.
Travis Bennett is a worried man. His dog Dunkyn is swollen on one side of his face. When he takes him to see the local vet, Cheryl Fisher, she isn’t there. There’s a new vet in her place. A male vet, and he is telling Travis that Dunkyn will need surgery. Dr Ryan suspects Dunkyn has a problem with a tooth, he’ll take an x-ray and operate on the corgi. Simple. But Travis is having none of it. He won’t allow surgery on his beloved corgi by this new doctor. He’s heard doctors he doesn’t know say all kinds of things to him about a loved one before –
No big deal.
I know what I’m doing.
– and it isn’t simple. They die. No x-rays, no surgery, just tell him his dog doesn’t have cancer. Give him an alternative. Dr Ryan gives him antibiotics with reservations, but he can’t do much else with such an agitated and openly hostile man. On his way out, Travis notices that the new vet drives a yellow Miata with a rainbow dog sticker on the bumper adding to his general cantankerous demeanour towards him.
Travis does not get off to a good start with me. But slowly you’re let into Travis’ world, his heart and his mind. He is in pain. His wife, his childhood sweetheart and his partner of over two decades, has died, and he’s battled some real heartache since.
But at first, well, I struggled with him. He was simply rude to Wesley, whom I adored from the get-go. Travis initially has such rancour in his words and actions towards a man who does nothing but try to help him with his dog (on several occasions) because Wesley is noticeably gay…in El Dorado, and that sets off emotions. The fact that he used the word fag in the most derogatory fashion really made me flinch and want to slap him into next year. But you know the man doth protest too much.
Thirty five year old Wesley Ryan was raised in Kansas City and comes from a well-to-do family. He has come (back) to El Dorado to intern at the local veterinary clinic, Cheryl’s. He spent holidays and vacations with his maternal grandparents here. He has fond memories – the park, the bandstand, the town events, his grandparent’s love. Now they have passed on and left him their house.
Apart from the incentive of an internship and a house, he is leaving behind a broken relationship with his partner of nine years, Todd – and the fucking around that came after the break-up. He’s happy to be somewhere that isn’t Kansas City, and the idealised holiday town of his youth has him feeling this is where he needs to be. He has the degree, the knowledge, the job, now he has to really knuckle down (no men) and be responsible. But from being a child to now being an obviously gay man is different in a small, bible-belt town in Missouri. It is never going to be easy. He stands out. He dresses differently, he has shaped eyebrows, he swishes a little, and he drives a yellow Miata convertible –
He needed a break, a chance to just have some fun. Then John Wallace came into his mind, and the wary expressions on the old men’s faces when they stared at him from their perch on the rock wall. He remembered the tone in Travis Bennett’s voice when he’d called him a fag.
Luckily, one of the first people Wesley meets is town is Wendy. Wendy owns the Crocheted Rabbit. He wanders in one day to look around and ends up gaining a friend. Wendy is Travis’s sister but she is more openly embracing of Wesley than Travis has been thus far. She’s helped raise her brother’s children for the past four years after their mother’s death. Caleb is now fourteen and the twins, Avery and Mason, are six. It’s a good thing too, as Travis fell to pieces and did what a few men do when they are in pain – worked too hard and drank too much. However, he’s nothing if not a good father… but his grief lingers. Wendy understands, she is a kind, loving sister and a terrific aunt. She knows Wesley is gay and she’s good with that, Wesley is good company and nice to be around. Shannon also confided in Wendy about Travis’ desire for men, so she knows that a lot of the anger emanating from her brother is a hurt man, a confused man feeling things he’d prefer to keep buried.
Then the Stars Fall is written over four seasons. It is told from different POV – predominantly Travis and Wesley, but a couple of other people get a short POV. There are also fleeting flashbacks which flow well within the storytelling and add to the readers’ understanding of Travis and Shannon’s marriage. His feelings for her, his feelings for men and how Shannon dealt with that. His love of his children and the special bond he has with his corgi, Dunkyn. Well, really Shannon’s, but via her, his dog. Shannon bought him, Travis didn’t want the little dog at first, but he proved to be so much more and such a connection to Shannon and their life together…and after.
Long story short, Travis hears the whispers of Shannon urging him to move on. He’s made promises to her. He likes Wesley, desires him, he should give it a try. Things do not run smoothly. Travis finds it hard to let go of Shannon. Wesley is attracted to Travis, but Travis has children and he is newly coming out of the closet. Wesley should run. Nevertheless, Travis makes the first moves – he kisses Wesley and he later asks him out. The first date is bad. But as they grow closer and see more of each other it gets better but, paradoxically, harder. As Travis falls for Wesley more and more he makes some awful gaffs –
“Maybe you could butch it up a bit?”
Wesley flinched. “What?”
Travis looked at him desperate pleading in his eyes, his voice full of apologetic defensiveness.
Maybe he was experiencing his life backward. Wasn’t shame supposed to be early on, when you were figuring yourself out? Not after two decades of being an out and proud gay man. But it was there, and it was greater than the shame John Wallace had ignited, yet it was brought on by the man who’d just claimed to love him. He was not going to cry. He wasn’t going to.
However, Wesley is not about to stuff himself into a closet for anyone, no matter that he understands where some of this talk is coming from. No matter the hurt. I loved Wesley’s quiet strength and understanding. The way he embraced the children. His empathy.
It is hard. El Dorado is a small town and as they meet at the vets for ‘lunch’ and at Wesley’s as they sleep together of a night, people talk. Caleb gets bullied at school because of his fag father. Travis has a family to think of. He is already suffering guilt about being with someone who isn’t Shannon, now the whole town knows. He perceives some are acting different towards him. He owns the local feed store and business is down a little. He is copping crap from town bully, John Wallace, and his best friend and he are now not talking. Plus, Emmitt Walker, who he herds buffalo for, is putting him on trial after years of working for him. He has to confront so many people about his sudden change of status from a (seemingly) heterosexual widower to someone who is seeing and having sex with another man. It is daunting. But he is nothing if not a strong man.
Wesley has his own set of issues. He is not just with a partner, he is taking on three children and feeling like he is living in the shadow of a woman he simply can’t compete with. But, does he have to compete? There are some things that Wesley does that are un-Wesley like, an inner strength that comes from somewhere when some things occur. Does Shannon not only whisper to her husband and push him, but push Wesley too?
My only disappointment with this book is that there isn’t a scene on page where Wesley and Travis make love. Don’t get me wrong, this is still sensual storytelling. I also know there is more to Then the Stars Fall. However, for the most part, it is about a man who gets a second chance to love again, only this time with a man. Travis Bennett has always been attracted to men, something he kept buried and hidden from most people – except Shannon, Shannon knew – until Wesley. It is profoundly moving and deeply romantic and there were two occasions where I really wanted to be with them when they let go privately and kissed, fondled, touched, caressed, were lost in their passion. I missed that. But in a book with so much love, so much character depth, so much story, that is the only thing I can find as a niggle. So, while I mention it, I won’t be like the pessimist who sees a small black dot on an otherwise huge and utterly pristine white board, for I truly loved Then the Stars Fall.
It’s interesting, two of Brandon Witt’s most powerful novels have been set in one small town. I have to say that even though small towns frustrate me immensely after reading The Shattered Door, but mostly after reading Then the Stars Fall, it is officially on my ‘bucket list’ to visit El Do. I really want to stand in the park with the bandstand and look at the Norman Rockwell painting that Brandon Witt describes so beautifully. TtSF definitely is a vivid portrait of small town life and the people who reside within it. Of what relationships entail and how they can be more complex and painful than we ever planned or expected. It’s a well written character study. It’s about sexual fluidity, family, friends, life and death, people who are accepting and those who aren’t. It’s also about good family… no matter the composition. But mostly, it’s a poignant romance. A real homage to everlasting love.
I loved the MC’s, Travis and Wesley. Wesley had me from the beginning, Travis grew on me and stole my heart as he poured out his. The Bennett family is a delight, from caring Caleb to sassy Avery and shy and easy-going Mason. And, much like Maudra Phelpman in The Shattered Door, I adored the two older Bennett women – Wendy and Shannon, Travis’ deceased wife. That is not easy to write well. It could have been difficult as the reader wants to see Travis and Wesley happy and Shannon’s (metaphorical) ‘ghost’ could have been a real hindrance. It wasn’t. She was very much alive throughout the book but she whispered the right words. She was a champion of love for her family.
I must add this, Brandon Witt writes strong, self-sufficient, patient, tolerant and nurturing women well. Even the quirky or difficult ones are fully fleshed out, real, and interesting – I’ll just say Iris. It is obvious from his writing that he has a love of and affinity with the fairer sex. This woman thanks you, Brandon Witt, it is refreshing to not read yet another female prop, shrew or frustrating caricature in this genre. But at the end of the day, Then the Stars Fall never loses site of the fact that it is LGBT/gay fiction. I have read everything Brandon Witt has written and that tradition will continue. The cover is beautiful. The writing memorable and evocative. 5 Stars!
Two songs I listened to whilst reading –
One for the characters: The Civil Wars http://youtu.be/gHa71o7qPE4
And one that just kinda seems El Do for me: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell http://youtu.be/DXi8C1TvuG8
ARC supplied by the author in return for an honest review.