This book is about as far as you can get outside of my usual reading lane and still be in the romance genre. To begin with, it’s m/m, which I don’t read because I’m wary of a sub-genre about gay men that’s largely written by women for other women. Next, the author is someone I chat with enough on Twitter that I’d totally hug her if I see her at RT. Finally, this was also a book I got for free through NetGalley, which I’ve never done before. A book has to be really fucking compelling to make me want to try reading m/m, risk a Twitter friendship and start down the dark path of free books. A genderqueer, Chinese-Canadian hero paired with an Inuit hero in a New Adult romance written by an author under 30 is that sort of book.
Set in multicultural Vancouver, British Columbia, Wallflower is essentially the coming of age story of Rob Ng, a painfully shy art student living in an old house with four other guys. When he isn’t in class or working his shifts at a local adult video store as a favor to a roommate, Rob’s shut in his room playing an MMORPG. But there’s more to his roleplaying than assuming a place in the game’s fantasy setting. In addition to playing an elf in the game, he affects a female persona with his guildmates, who all know him as Bobby. As Rob, he’s awkward, shy and forgettable. When he’s Bobby, though, he feels beautiful, charismatic and wanted. But who is he really?
Rob is the only POV character and this is very much his story, although I’d still call this a romance. We meet his love interest – the burly, loud-mouthed comic artist Dylan Ford – early on in an amusing scene at the adult video store.
Dylan smiled back, encouraged, and put both elbows on the counter as he watched Rob process the rental. “And my sister does porn in California so I’d feel bad pirating it.”
God, was that supposed to be small talk? Did this guy not have a filter? All of Rob’s goodwill washed away in a tidal wave of fresh awkwardness. He hummed a noncommittal “Mmhmm,” in response, hoping it would satisfy.
“Would feel like stealing the food off of her table, you know? Not that I’d watch porn with her in it.” Dylan laughed again, oblivious, totally unashamed. “God! Not that you’d think I would. Shit.”
“I’d hope not,” Rob said. Please let the roof fall in on our heads. He rang Dylan through and handed him his change. “Due back next week. Thanks for coming in.”
After this, though, Dylan fades into the background for the first third of the book and Rob’s struggle with his gender identity/expression takes center stage, which I found a little frustrating. Part of this journey involves Rob essentially having phone sex over the videogame chat client while in his Bobby persona. It was instructive in that it showed how Rob gains a ton of confidence as Bobby and seems so much more comfortable with himself than he is as Rob, but because the guy he was getting off with wasn’t Dylan or anyone else I felt invested in, it felt like a tangent. Like, why am I watching this play out with a random partner and not Dylan? And if it’s not going to be with Dylan, why not have some sort of relationship between them while Rob’s exploring his feminine half? We meet Dylan and then we don’t really see him again until the halfway point, after Rob’s had a couple of chats with his guildie as Bobby and after Rob’s worked a few shifts at the store in hair extensions and women’s clothing.
Once Dylan re-enters the picture, I started to really enjoy the book. That might be because Dylan’s my kind of person. He’s loud, brash and gives no fucks. Adopted as a child by a white family, he’s got a foot in two cultures and a huge chip on his shoulder. His explanation to Rob for why he chose a modern art gallery for their group assignment says a lot about who he is and where he’s coming from.
“Because when we do our presentation next week they’re going to be expecting me to walk up there and talk about Coast Salish art or something. Blah, blah, blah traditions, blah, blah, blah authenticity and all that shit—never mind the fact that whether you count me as Inuit or white or something in between, they’re still not my traditions—but instead I’m gonna go up there and tell them about neon, mass-produced American art depicting decades-old pop culture, and present it as being just as authentic as The Raven and the First Men ever was.”
But I think the book picked up for me mostly because the dialog and sex scenes were now developing two characters instead of just one. Conversations felt more productive and the sex had more emotional impact. I got to see who Dylan was and who Rob was when he was with him, and that’s basically what I read romance for.
I know fuck all about being genderqueer, genderfluid or bigender, so I can’t comment on the book’s authenticity. What I will say is that I liked Rob/Bobby immensely. He wasn’t consumed by angst so much as unsure of who he was. He enjoys thinking of himself as a woman while also having no desire to stop being a guy. He eventually decides that he’s a bit of both at the same time. And while there’s sort of a “coming out” scene where Rob dresses in an androgynous but vaguely femme way when he comes clean with Dylan, I liked that he has no plans to stop dressing like a woman in the future, and that Dylan’s completely into feminine Bobby as much as he is the masculine Rob. I was also glad to see that Rob wasn’t the “little lady” to “all man” Dylan either. Their relationship dynamic was a partnership between two unique, complicated humans, which is as it should be.
Where the book kinda lost me was near the end. There’s tying up loose ends and then there’s putting an elaborate bow at the end of each of them. Every plot thread was so neatly and thoroughly resolved that it took a bit of the realism out of the book. It had been an honest, messy trip back to early adulthood up until that point, as Belleau has a great handle on the tumultuous age. Between Dylan’s sister’s convenient oversharing conversation to the big group hug at the video store, the “series finale” feel felt at odds with the atmosphere of the rest of the book.
Final Assessment: A pitch-perfect “New Adult” novel that steps outside the genre’s well-worn path. Uneven pacing holds it back a bit, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable story about finding yourself and someone who loves you for it. B-