Review: Level Hands by Amy Jo Cousins06:20
Author: Amy Jo Cousins
Date of publication: 25 August 2015
Genre/Themes: Romance, queer
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My rating: 5 Stars
When it comes to love, there’s no such thing as smooth sailing.
Rafael Castro is so far out of his element he can’t even see it anymore. Carlisle College in Massachusetts is a long way from his Chicago home, even farther from his Dominican Republic roots.
The only thing keeping him attached to his last nerve is the prospect of seeing Denny Winslow again. The first time they met, Denny taught Rafi to fly across the water, rowing hard in a knife-like boat. Now, two years later, on the wings of a rowing scholarship, Rafi is attending Denny’s elite college.
Even before the excitement wears off, Rafi is struggling with classes and fending off rumors that Denny’s family, not Rafi’s talent, won him his spot. To quash the gossip, Rafi tries to steer clear of the man he wants. A plan that evaporates in the fire of renewed attraction.
But Carlisle’s academic pressure cooker has Rafi barely treading water. And when a family crisis hits, both Rafi and Denny must pull hard to keep their relationship from capsizing in rough waters.
This is book 4 in the Off Campus series and while I loved them all, I think this is my favourite story. I rarely do more personal reviews but this book touched on so many personal levels that I can't help it.
It's a tender and sexy interracial mm college sports romance and Amy Jo Cousins covers brilliantly, I'd say, so many aspects of college life and the struggles to fit in, to belong in a place and with a person (you love).
It's Rafi's book through and through, not just because the story is told from his POV. Don't get me wrong, I loved Denny quite a lot and he has a strong presence in the story but Rafi got me teary eyed a time or two in this book.
It is uncanny hom much I could relate to some of his college experience given how differen him and I are. I'm a 36 yo white het woman from a small country in Europe. I went to the best University in my country and who lived with her parents at the time and didn't suffer from racial or sexual abuse but none of my parents have university degrees and pressure to fit was real. My first year was so intense and scary and wonderful without having to navigate a love relationship at the time.
In short, for long stretches of of the story I felt like Rafi's thoughts were mine. His struggle to make sense of this new, unfamiliar place, to be good enough/to deserve his place there (since he got there on a scholarship). His experience was powerfully presented and his anxiety felt real and true to life, especially to me as someone who is pretty anxious about a lot of things in life.
And I absolutely loved that the story made me look back on my own experiences in university with just a touch of melancholy and no real sense of regret.
The story covers Rafi's life in its complexity - the romance, the college, the family stuff, the rowing. There is even a brief and rather sweet appearance of Steph and Cash (with some Tom and Reese on the side). Rafi struggled with so many new things in his life and it all was interconnected and affected deeply his relationship with Denny.
The chemistry was really strong but they had to deal with a lot of issues on practical level, basically they had to find a way to be together. I liked how Ms Cousins didn't gloss over their difficulties and made their romance a perfect one. The love to each other and both felt they belong together but that didn't save them from making mistakes along the way. They are too different in terms of social, ethnic background, financial situation, family situation and their love didn't just magically erase those difference. They had to learn how to be together while still being different. There was no sacrifice on oneself just to make the other happy. Rather what we got were two young people making compromises for each other.
There is an element of coming-of-age to this story. Both Rafi and Denny had to figure out what they wanted in life and how to go about getting it. The ending came as a bit of surprise but I think it fits the characters and I see it as promise, something that helps them to be happy together.
It's a very moving, touching story and at the same time it felt real. This series keeps getting better and better and is quickly becoming one of my all-time favourites.
I want to end this embarrassingly personal review with my favourite quote from the book which is about Denny but I think it fits Rafi as well and pretty much sums up my way of loving - "Denny needed to take care of him because that was how Denny loved."