Monday, August 22, 2011

Between Sinners and Saints by Marie Sexton

Why I read it:  I adored Ms. Sexton's Coda series.  She's become an autobuy for me.

What it's about: (from Goodreads) Levi Binder is a Miami bartender who cares about only two things: sex and surfing. Ostracized by his Mormon family for his homosexuality, Levi is determined to live his life his own way, but everything changes when he meets massage therapist Jaime Marshall.  Jaime is used to being alone. Haunted by the horrors of his past, his only friend is his faithful dog, Dolly. He has no idea how to handle somebody as gorgeous and vibrant as Levi. Complete opposites on the surface, Levi and Jaime both long for something that they can only find together. Through love and the therapeutic power of touch, they’ll find a way to heal each other, and they’ll learn to live as sinners in a family of saints.

What worked for me: I actually hadn't read the blurb before I started reading the book.  The fact that it was contemporary and written by Marie Sexton was enough for me.  This is a beautiful book.  That's the word that comes to mind when I think about the overall experience.  Levi Binder (rhymes with cinder) is, in his own way, almost as broken at Jaime - at its heart, it is, I think, a story about redemption through love.   Levi works as a bartender at The Zone, a gay bar where he hooks up, sometimes multiple times in a night, with a parade of nameless, faceless men.  He doesn't do relationships and he's not close to anyone.    He is estranged from his devoutly Mormon family because he's gay and his promiscuous lifestyle emphasises the rift between he and his family.
Jaime on the other hand is much more quietly alone - a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, he keeps apart from people, finding it very difficult to be touched and to trust.  (It might seem strange that such a person is a massage therapist, but it is really quite well explained in the book - he has control as the therapist - he's the one doing the touching, and the touching isn't sexual in nature - he doesn't really see a person, rather, a collection of muscles, ligaments and tendons which need treatment.  So, he's touching others without really feeling, without being touched at all.)
When they first meet, Levi hits on Jaime quite aggressively and Jaime is terrified.  This gets through to Levi in a way that nothing ever has before and he makes a heartfelt apology and they start a friendship - with no ulterior motives, which is a first for Levi, as much as it is for Jaime, albeit for different reasons.
Interwoven in their burgeoning relationship is the relationship between Levi and his family.  Of necessity, the book goes fairly heavily into the Mormon religion and there is a strong religious overtone to the book - it's not preachy or anything, but God and faith and church doctrine play a major part in the story.  I felt it was a brave move by the author - religion is often a sticky subject and, perhaps, Mormonism is perhaps slightly more problematic because of the perception that they are a bit, er, out there in their beliefs and practices.  Levi addresses it himself in the book actually - he makes a comment about how as soon as people hear he was a raised a Mormon, they ask him about polygamy and the TV show "Big Love".  When Levi came out to his parents, they tried to get him to "pray the gay away" and when that didn't work, their solution was for Levi to be celibate his whole life.  Not surprisingly, Levi rebels against this idea.  Extremely hurt by the abandonment of his family and the conditions on what he thought was supposed to be unconditional, he adopts a lifestyle designed to grate on his family's last nerve.
As Levi and Jaime become closer, Levi starts to put Jaime's needs first.  He sees Jaime's need for family and connection and introduces Jaime to his family for his (Jaime's) benefit - as they are (at this point) only friends, there is no problem from his family with him doing this.  Levi's family is large  and there are various points of view regarding Levi's "gayness" - from, the church doctrine is wrong and being gay is okay, to it's okay to be gay but not promiscuous, and I'm so sick of hearing about it, can we not talk about it anymore? and to no way, gay is wrong wrong wrong.  In the course of painful family "confabs" we see all the different points of view.  I thought Ms. Sexton quite cleverly put these viewpoints across - they were entirely consistent with the characters as drawn and didn't come across as some kind of social commentary.  But it also showed very clearly the tension that really exists for believers (of any religion really) where the religion dictates that homosexuality is wrong but also preaches love and family.  When my son was young, I couldn't get him to eat (much at all but in particular red meat) and he became iron deficient.  The paediatrician told me to make sure I fed him red meat or he'd be ill.  He also told me not to "make food a war".  I got mad.  I said, "well, what do you want - do you want him to eat red meat or not have a war - because I can't do both!".  He conceded I had a point and for a while there was war and such interesting dishes as shaved steak in yoghurt... but I digress.  My point is, sometimes things seem mutually exclusive and extremely difficult to reconcile.  It's not as easy as just saying that what someone believes is wrong.  There's more to it than that - even if, ultimately, it happens to be true (that they are wrong I mean).    I very much liked how Levi's desire to be connected to his family kept him coming back even though he felt he was on a hiding to nothing.  The reverse was also true of course.   Enter Jaime.  It becomes apparent to some members of Levi's family (before Levi fully realises it himself) that Levi is in love with Jaime.  And for some of his family that makes all the difference - as difficult as they found his "gayness" to deal with, his promiscuity made it impossible for them to give him support.  As he gets closer to Jaimie and changes his lifestyle in order to be a better man and what Jaime needs, he draws to a place where his family can begin to compromise and accept him for who he is and who he loves.    I felt Levi's frustration when he was the centre of the family confab - when he was asked over and over again to do something that could not be done - stop being gay (or, at the very least, give up gay sex).  Part of me wondered why he kept coming back, but the other part of me understood - families - let's face it, they get away with what no-one else will.

But, the real beauty of the book was Jaime and Levi.  Jaime was such a wounded soul and seeing him come out of his shell and blossom in Levi's care was so lovely.   Watching Levi become the man who does this - who wanted too, who could,  was lovely too.  Levi realises that Jaime may never be able to be a sexual partner for him but loves him anyway.  He is patient and kind and manages not to be a martyr in the process.  Because Levi and Jaime had spent time becoming good friends, Jaime is able to trust Levi and he learns many things about himself and his fears and how strong he is.  What Jaime went through as a child is not something that could be fixed by a "mighty wang of lovin'" and it was nice that we were shown that it was not all wine and roses in the bedroom once Jaime and Levi started to get physical.  They had to learn and talk and adjust and sometimes it all went wrong but they kept being patient and kind to one another and worked through it.  There would always be some triggers for Jaime but that he would not longer be crippled by what had happened to him as a young boy.

All of the above makes it sound like the book is heavy going but while angsty, it does have it's lighter moments too, like this one where Jaime is reflecting that he was glad Levi had offered to teach him to surf:-

He'd wished many times he knew how...     ...He also wasn't sure where to go to avoid running into some type of surfer gang.  He'd seen Point Break and while he suspected it was nothing but Hollywood bullshit, he didn't exactly want to find out the hard way he was wrong.
And Jaime, while broken and scarred was no pushover.  He was very clear about his boundaries and he could (and did) stand up for himself.  He needed Levi yes but he wasn't pathetic.  And in different ways, Levi needed Jaime just as much.  As protective of Jaime as Levi was, I didn't feel the relationship was uneven - what Jaime brought to Levi was just as precious.  And they were both guys and they did guy things and had guy conversations - they were whole characters and so much more than their own traumas.

What didn't: I understood why the book ended where it ended, but personally, I would have liked to have had the whole scene.

What else? All in all, I think I have done a poor job of explaining why reading this book was such a wonderful experience and the beauty of Levi and Jaime together.  You really just need to read it and I think you'll get what I've been trying to say.

Grade: A


Chris said...

Ok, I couldn't actually read your review, since I haven't read the book yet (but I have it!). But I'm excited to see that it rated an A from you!

Kaetrin said...

@Chris - come back after you've read it and let me know what you think! :)