August 24, 2010

Musings on Hard to Hold by Julie Leto

After sending Alison Kent a copy of my The Icing on the Cake review as excerpted here and posted in full at Amazon, I received an email from Julie Leto, another author helping to launch the True Vows imprint (fictionalized versions of real-life romances) of HCI books. She'd read my review and wondered whether I'd be interested in reading Hard to Hold, featuring a hero with Tourette's Syndrome.

I don't know about you, but I'd never even heard of Tourette's until I watched an episode of St. Elsewhere back in the day. Jump forward a couple of decades, when Eric Cartman learns about Tourette's in the 2007 season opener of Southpark and decides to pretend to have the disorder so he can cuss at will. Other than also knowing that for many, Tourette's and OCD go hand in hand, such was the extent of my understanding of Tourette's Syndrome. Given my interest in psychological conditions (I've written a couple of times about Asperger's here and at Amazon), I said I'd love to read her book. After having done so, though, I decided that rather than review it, I'd prefer to write about some of its aspects, so if this essentially reads like an ATBF column, I apologize in advance.

Set in Albany, newspaper reporter Anne Miller meets lobbyist Michael Davoli after a concert while on the way to a bar. The chemistry is electric, but Michael holds back; between antihistamines and his Tourette's, drinking would be ill-advised. They next meet when he moves into her apartment building, and though there's something there, he holds back again. Even after he is locked out of his apartment and Anne picks his lock, the best he can come up with is a thank you by post-it note.

After a dating lifetime of "let's be friends," Anne lacks confidence in her appeal to the opposite sex, so making the first move with a man sending her mixed signals scares her. She forges past her fear and asks Michael out, and he accepts. They get along wonderfully, and their kisses are electric. After Michael reveals his disorder, he's delighted that Anne isn't turned off, and they begin to date. But Michael is one of those people who thinks things to death and gets stuck along the way. In other words, he indulges in "mind-fucking."

It's never revealed in the story if this is related to his OCD-like tendancies or Tourette's, but I suspect it is. Stress brings on his symptoms, and deliberate thinking helps them subside. If being in your head helps you avoid stiff muscles or involuntary muscle movements, eye and facial tics, a lack of focus and an inability to control your vocal chords, resulting in barked-like speech (Michael, like most sufferers, does not go around cussing inappropriately), it's easy to imagine constantly being in your head and over-thinking your issues to death. The disconnect, of course, is that focusing on your thoughts interferes with dealing with your emotions. As a result, Michael goes into panic mode; he can't understand why he feels about Anne as he does, why he can't stop thinking about her and how good she makes him feel. So he decides they need to slow down and be friends before taking their relationship further, which unfortunately feeds directly into Anne's "let's be friends" history. She stands up for herself...for them...and because he can't get out of the place in his head where he's stuck, they break up.

I don't want to go into more detail about the plot, other than to say Michael soon comes to his senses and they resume their relationship, which turns physical, but his mind-fucking also gets the better of him when Anne goes on vacation. Later its adjunct, what I like to call "scheming and plotting" - the need to create sometimes elaborate plans combined with an inability to deviate from them once set in motion - appears when he decides to propose. It's frustratingly comical to watch him try and force his plan for the proposal on Anne when she and her family don't want to cooperate.

That's not the story's only comic note. There's a good deal of humor in their conversations, texts, and emails, and it's easy to watch them fall in love - even if Anne doesn't understand Michael's Phish obsession, is Oscar to his Felix, and sometimes feels Michael's dog doesn't understand who's the new top bitch. Their equally evident care for one another shows when they nurse each other back to health while on vacation in Peru, in how Anne trusts Michael would never hurt her (involuntarily) in his sleep...and how he tries to help her come to grips with her horrible boss at the newspaper simply by being a strong, silent force. For somebody as clueless as Michael can be, his care of Anne when she is moved permanently to the night shift, and his listening to her as she figures out what she needs to do to resolve her unhappiness reminded me of my own husband's care for me.

Good relationships are built upon care, concern, help, and trust, and all of these things allow each partner to not only give love, but to accept it, which isn't always as easy as it seems. That's a major Life Lesson it took thick-skulled me close to 25 years to learn, and that Hard to Hold reminded me of that surprised me. Acceptance, of course, goes further, and Leto shows that as well, as when Michael wants to see Phish in concert during their reunion tour for the sixth - or is it the seventh? - time right before their wedding, all the way across the country, and when Anne's new hours and unhappiness cause her to gain some weight.

These issues may not be yours or mine, but they resonate regardless because we all have our obsessions, each of us feels stress in a different way, and there are always disappointments along the way. Just last week, as we settled our daughter into her freshman dorm, my husband talked to her about cafeteria eating and said he'd "already lived through the crazy lettuce diet" when I was a college freshman. In writing this, I immediately remember all the times my husband has listened to me talk ad nauseum about this book or that book, and last night, although I generally ask him a question out of left field that apparently is not at all germaine, I once again stepped into a metaphorical jury box so I could re-live with him the trial that he's been prepping for since July which began yesterday.

Relating to characters and/or situations is not a requirement for enjoying fiction, but it can be nice to feel a connection based on personal experience. Nobody in my family has Tourette's, but mind-fucking and scheming and plotting live close by. And, as someone who developed, then ran an "Isn't It Romantic?" contest for a decade, I can attest to the joy of reading about another couple's romance. I may love werewolves, Medieval warriors, and bazillionaire Irishmen
who live in the future, but there's something to be said for the actual guy and girl next door.


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