Heat Factor: Gentle, encouraging, exploratory, emotional
Character Chemistry: They have big hug energy to offer each other, even though they both think they shouldn’t ask for it themselves
Plot: Boarding school besties Robert and David both come out of WWI with scars both physical and mental, and find their way back to themselves with each other
Overall: My heart is so full and so wrecked
Mercy, Aster Glenn Gray has a knack for writing emotionally messy characters that I really want to hug. Robert and David are such imperfect sweethearts. This book just snuggled right into my heart.
You know that type of historical fiction where we’ve got characters dealing with their own trauma, and they find each other, but there are social and/or personal roadblocks, but they overcome the roadblocks and find healing together, and everything feels really hopeful after a gut-wrenching emotional rollercoaster, and then they’re separated forever or one of them dies? This book is kind of like AGG took that formula and said, “That ending is trash. They can live happily ever after. Watch this.”
Robert met David at boarding school when David arrived at sixteen. Robert was (or was verging on) eighteen and had been pining for his love, Cyril, who had gone off to Oxford and ended their relationship because it was wicked. Finding the recently orphaned American transplant, David, recovering from a bout of tears in the very spot he’d gone to cry himself, Robert befriended the younger boy and soon fell in love with him, only to do nothing about it, and then WAR.
The flashback to their schooldays doesn’t take up much space, but it provides a connection point that the men return to throughout the story. The normalcy of the schoolboys having sexual encounters with each other before venturing out to their adulthoods provides a touchstone for both men to readily envision such a relationship, but the way those encounters were perceived by the boys at the time, in addition to his being dumped by Cyril, also fed Robert’s perception that he was different, because he would never be one of the boys who also liked girls and would go off into the future to marry a nice girl and have a “normal” life.
Robert is further alienated from others because he uses and experiences sex differently than either Cyril or David. David is very probably demisexual, with some sexual experience and extremely limited sexual enjoyment, but also he has in the past expressed interest in women, so Robert feels the emotional burden that his (extensive) past experience soils him and also that David will likely leave him. These feelings are magnified because Robert used sex as an emotional bandaid both during the war and after he’d lost his leg, and when he confessed to Cyril—who’d gotten over the wrongness and proposed they get back together once the war started, though they were never posted anywhere together—Cyril left Robert in disgust, told Robert he wished he’d died in battle before learning about the cheating, and then did promply die back at the front. As you might imagine, this did not leave Robert in the best headspace.
I know some readers really don’t like cheating, but people are messy, and people do things they’re not proud of, and Robert’s experience of processing his trauma and grief that way is 1) not particularly unique to him and 2) a really good tension point as he seeks some happiness with David even as he seeks to punish himself for past transgressions. Also AGG does set Robert’s actions firmly in a “coping strategy” basket, because by the time the book opens and Robert meets David again, he’s already processed much of his grief and trauma and has stopped engaging in activities that make him feel bad about himself.
While Robert is hating himself for his past, David is struggling in the present. He’s reasonably chipper during his recovery at Robert’s family home-cum-hospital, but once he leaves, a series of events occurs that pull back the curtain on his depression and anxiety. It’s hard because 1) there’s often not much that Robert or anyone else can do except be there for David and 2) Robert and David spend most of their time before they confess their feelings for each other dancing around social norms and expectations. It’s really difficult to say something like, “Do you need to be held?” while social niceties dictate that you barely ever touch each other at all (or mention feelings at all). Furthermore, even when they have decided to engage in a relationship, they—and especially Robert—are mired in expectations of how that relationship ought to operate. Think ideas like: Robert is older, so he should initiate and be toppy while David should wait for Robert’s lead and seek to please him. They both enjoy that their relationship doesn’t actually operate that way, but the sense of what should be is nevertheless an interloper.
Are you getting why I tagged the mood for this as “melancholy” in addition to “thoughtful”? There’s a big cloud of heavy that just hangs over these men. That said, the way they are present for each other is wonderful. The way they find joy together is heartwarming. The way they work through their problems is fantastic. Once their relationship begins they have so many opportunities to choose each other, and they do. Every. Single. Time.
I absolutely LOVED this book.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
Buy Now: Amazon
Looking for something similar?
Other books by Aster Glenn Gray to rip your heart out
2 thoughts on “Review: The Larks Still Bravely Singing by Aster Glenn Gray (2021)”
What a wonderful review of what sounds like a really good book; thank you!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you! I certainly loved it. 🙂 But it’s difficult sometimes not just to squee about books, so thanks so much for your comment.
LikeLiked by 1 person