Con Riley never disappoints, and this author just keeps getting better and better.
In Be My Best Man, Con not only gives us a beautiful romance, but also head-on tackles one of the big current social issues.
Vanya, early 20s, has fled his home country of Russia nearly eight months ago when he was found out as being gay and violently beaten because of his sexuality. Now in Britain, still traumatized and scared, his dreams of becoming a teacher dashed, he is waiting to get this asylum request approved so he can be granted the ability to have a job and earn an income. In his current limbo, though finally safe from persecution for his sexuality, he lives in a run-down hostel where he has befriended a young man and woman from Estonia, who are both in Britain legally as EU citizens but whose status under Brexit is also uncertain. The hostel is not really safe either, though Vanya shares a room with his friend Kaspar. Theft is rampant. Rooms are broken into. Women fear being assaulted.
The author created a character that I immediately connected with. Vanya struggles to learn English, practicing whenever and wherever he can, and his struggles were authentic and realistic. His loneliness was evident, and I felt for him right away.
Jason is a man in his early forties, who's recently had a falling out with his foster brother Andrew over the brother's recent engagement and wedding plans. See, it's the 3rd wedding, and Jason, without even meeting the girl in question, has already decided that this is just another mistake. He too felt lonely to me, when he was first introduced, despite being rather successful in his business, and it was fairly clear to me that he was shaped by his childhood experiences and didn't really trust anyone, other than his late foster mother and foster brother.
The meet-cute happens in the department store where Kaspar works and Vanya is visiting after his latest asylum appointment and Jason is hiding to wait for a call or text from Andrew. Jason thinks Vanya works in the store, and Vanya wants to practice his English. And get to know the hunky older man.
Jason's wrong assumption leads to him hiring Vanya as his personal shopper, and the two begin spending time together. This is where the story really begins to take shape.
Con Riley combined the sweet yet complicated romance that develops between these two men with the social issue of asylum seekers who have no legal standing, are usually running from persecution, scared to death, having to learn the customs of a country so foreign to them, and being generally looked down upon by many people. Vanya's plight, his uncertain status before asylum is granted, his internalized shame, was heart-breaking, and I wanted to reach into the book and hug him and protect him. He keeps a huge secret from Jason, and this secret nearly breaks them.
Jason on the other hand is oblivious to Vanya's struggles for a long time, not intentionally of course, but he doesn't realize how traumatized the young man is. He also doesn't realize for a long time how much he's hurting Andrew and his future wife, and how his distrust of Andrew knowing his own heart is jeopardizing the remaining piece of family he has. But he learns. Under Vanya's attention, Jason begins to question decisions he's made, and how wrong he might have been. With Vanya in his life, Jason starts to believe that love might be real after all. He goes to finally meet Andrew's lovely young fiancee, and he begins to see how much they are truly in love, to the point where he even steps in to... well, no, you read this yourself.
The author has an extraordinary talent in giving life to the characters and making them feel real. Vanya's skittishness, Jason's irrational anger (born out of heartache), the social circumstances, Vanya making huge mistakes born out of fear - everything in this book was absolutely realistic and relatable.
This book (and the romance) flows slowly, and it needs to. Trauma such as Vanya's takes time to overcome. Jason's disbelief in lasting love can't just suddenly disappear. They are both shaped by their experiences, and since neither feels safe to talk freely and openly about their fears, they don't have an easy path to their HEA.
Writing their story in the third person present tense was also a stroke of genius, because this reader felt even more connected to the characters this way. Read every word carefully - this isn't a book you can speed-read. You must savor every carefully crafted sentence, every brilliant paragraph, and let the story unfold in real time to get the full impact. Vanya's English is heavily accented, and it's written in such a way, that I could easily "hear" him speaking the words.
I cried a few times. I wanted Jason to pull his head out of his ass. I wanted to shield Vanya from the big, bad world and give him shelter. I loved these characters, I loved this story, and I absolutely highly recommend that you read it.
Get to it.
** I received a free copy of this book from Signal Boost Promotions as part of the review tour for an honest and fair review. **