In one of my links posts last week, I mentioned wanting to read a romance featuring a religious or atheist character where there was no conversion narrative. That caught the attention of Riptide editor Sarah Frantz, whom I’ve talked to on Twitter for years, and she offered me a copy of Covet Thy Neighbor, which I happily accepted. A romance between an atheist and a Christian minister looked like a great idea for a story. Unfortunately, I didn’t love the execution.
Due to Ye Olde Pronoun Problem, the book is told in first person. Our narrator is tattoo artist and atheist Seth Wheeler, who’s lived and worked in the Colorado college town of Tucker Springs since his Christian family disowned him years ago. He’s living a low-key sort of life as a single guy in a small town, working in the tattoo parlor below his apartment, hanging out with friends from time to time, when Darren Romero moves into the apartment across the hall from him. Seth is immediately attracted to him and, despite not wanting to get involved with anyone at the moment, can’t resist Darren’s invitation to grab dinner and a drink. The friendly dinner goes great at first. They laugh at each other’s jokes, Seth can’t keep his eyes off the way Darren fills out his jeans, and things look to be progressing towards a date until Darren tells Seth what he came to Tucker Springs for: to take a position as the youth minister at a local church.
I’ll be frank here. Writing this review has been like wringing blood from a stone. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think the hardest books to review are the ones that are just ok. There are a couple content issues I want to talk about, but that’s about it. It’s a competent book. The writing didn’t jump out at me either way. I wasn’t thrown out of the story by the issues below so much as just never fell under the story’s spell.
So I didn’t struggle to read the book, as it was competently written, but I did take to Twitter a couple times to wonder out loud about some decisions the author made. The first bump in the road for me was the sex. Seth and Darren hook up after their spontaneous dinner date and have penetrative sex and, for whatever reason, I wondered why. This sort of thing is why I don’t read more m/m, because I don’t know what’s normal gay dating behavior and what is heteronormative projection from the female author. When I, the straight woman, read spontaneous first date anal sex, I’m like, dude, it’s too soon for santorum in this relationship. If this was an anonymous hookup, that’d be another story, but I was reading this and wondering why there was no hesitance and no concern for oversharing. I don’t know if this is me projecting my own ideas of what’s too intimate for a first date or if it’s an author bringing the hetero elevation of PIV sex as the one true Sex over to m/m, but I thought a blow job, handjob, or frottage scene would have made more sense for an impromptu hookup between two people who will see each other again. (Also, she had Seth use a condom to penetrate Darren, then has him fellate Darren until he ejaculates in his mouth. This is a safe sex no-no.)
My main stumbling block, though, was Seth’s atheism and the conflict between him and Darren over Darren being a minister. I know absolutely nothing about the author, but I got the feeling that she’s a Christian from the way the book frames the conflict. There’s a lot of Not All Like That defensiveness. Conversations Seth has with his friends frame his reluctance to date a minister as him judging all Christians unfairly.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out all day.” I tapped my fingers on the armrest. “I guess it . . . I mean . . .” I exhaled hard. “I think it just keeps coming back to the fact that after how things went down with my family and my old church, I don’t want to get involved with someone who’s part of that crowd.”
Jason lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows. “That was one of those extremist churches. Is it really fair to paint an entire religion with that brush?”
“Pity he’s part of that crowd,” I said. “He’s a nice guy, but . . . there’s no way I can get involved with someone like that.”
“He isn’t our families, though,” Michael said. “Just the fact that you were able to talk to him tells me he’s not one of those self-righteous cunts like the people we grew up around. That bunch would’ve beaten you with Bibles and drowned you in holy water by now.” He paused, no doubt eyeing me the way he always did. “Obviously he’s not that type, is he?”
Combined with an implication that Seth is an atheist because his church rejected homosexuality and him as a person, this storyline felt less like an exploration of two people navigating major differences in worldview and more like a mirror liberal Christians can look into and feel good about themselves. Seth said a number of things that didn’t show me a committed lack of belief in gods so much as a rejection of Christianity. Atheism is a deep-seated element of how a person views the world. It’s much more than rejecting a particular religion. When he visits Darren’s church and reports feeling a “sense of peace and devotion” upon looking at the crucifix, I get confused. Why would someone who does not believe in the supernatural and who has had traumatic experiences with Christianity feel that way? If he’s been an atheist since he was a teenager after trying to believe and finding it impossible, where does a “sense of peace and devotion” come from? I mean, I split on Catholicism almost 20 years ago and hearing “your faith” still triggers me a bit.
Because of what I see as the author’s fundamental misunderstanding of atheism, the conflict between Seth and Darren comes down to Seth worrying that Darren will eventually reject him for being gay and godless. While I guess this isn’t total nonsense, it’s sort of facile. I wanted to see discussion of how this major divergence in worldview will affect them. Is Seth going to be comfortable with the language of Christian ministry? How does Darren justify his participation in an oppressive institution? Instead, we get Seth worried Darren will try to convert him and Darren mad that Seth mistrusts Christians.
“You know, I can’t win.” He threw up his hands. “There are Christians who openly and rather vehemently shun me because I’m gay. And then in the gay community, I’m kept at arm’s length because I’m a Christian. No matter which group I’m around, I’m shut out for being one of ‘them.’” And all at once, the anger crumbled in favor of something a lot less hostile and a lot more painful. His voice wavered just slightly as he said, “Do you really think I would ever use my faith as a weapon against you, Seth?”
I flinched. “Do you think I thought my own family would?”
“You want to put me in the same category as Westboro Baptist while you’re at it?” The anger was back in full force, but the waver remained, like he was as close to losing his temper as he was to just breaking down. “How is what you’re saying to me any different from what everyone has done to you? Because of a vital part of who I am, a part of me I have never once tried to force on you or even bring into a conversation more than I thought you were comfortable with, you can’t be around me?”
Seth’s family turned on him, tried to send him to “pray away the gay” therapy, then completely disowned him, but his anger is unjustified? Christians in the US have been waging war on reproductive freedom, education, female sexuality and LGBT rights, but Seth’s anger is unreasonable because they’re Not All Like That? The author is making an argument for liberal Christianity with this book, whether she meant to or not, and I found it unpersuasive. Because Darren is a nice guy Christian who runs a drop-in shelter for homeless LGBT youth, Seth is supposed to discard his unease with Darren’s participation in the institution that harms him and so many others. I am unmoved.
Final Assessment: A competent but unimpressive read with a unsatisfying take on an interesting premise. C-