Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel
Book: Trust the Focus, by Megan Erickson
Publisher: Intermix (2015)
After graduating college, Justin Akron and his best friend Landry climb into Justin’s RV and take off on a cross-country trip. Justin’s father, a renowned freelance photographer, has just passed away, and their goal is to visit the places he most loved in life and spread his ashes, all the while blogging about the journey. Along the way, what was simply meant as a tribute to the dead brings long-suppressed tensions and truths rising to the surface. If they are willing to face them, Justin and Landry’s lives and relationship might change forever.
Trust the Focus benefits from a strong and believable premise that makes the central conflict easy to relate to. Justin has been suppressing his sexual orientation for years, adopting the image of “masculinity” as much as possible – playing baseball, joining a fraternity in college, etc. – while simultaneously behaving as his conservative politician mother’s perfect son, majoring in political science and preparing to become her campaign manager, despite really wanting to become a photographer like his father. Landry, his best friend since childhood, seems every bit as free as Justin is constrained: he is openly gay in a happy relationship and he studied whatever he wanted in college. Place those two opposites in a small, isolated space for several weeks, and two perfectly-crafted facades begin to crack. The consequences of this simple and believable premise felt just as real and meaningful as the set-up, the struggle their relationship becomes carrying real pathos.
While this book tells a great love story (of the friends-to-lovers variety, which I find particularly strong), it is just as effective as a coming-out story. Justin’s decision as to how honest he will be to his real wishes is not something that he can rush into comfortably. Yet he chooses to admit the truth because of love. This smart pairing of two types of story gets a lot out of its protagonist and makes him feel more developed than most. Their evolving relationship reveals vulnerabilities in Landry as well, and his clashes with Justin showcase the human imperfections that make him a more balanced and nuanced character.
While Erickson develops Justin and Landry well, this cannot be said about the other characters in her novel. The character who presents the most notable problem is Justin’s mother. As a politician running for office with a conservative platform, she is portrayed as the largest obstacle to Justin coming out freely and publicly. Their estranged relationship, along with the fact that the story is written from Justin’s first person perspective, means we never get a clear view of her as a human being until, with one small exception, the very end. The problem with her portrayal is not so much her being the barrier Justin needs to overcome; it is her main motivation, as stated: the future of her career. Her personal perspective is not revealed until the end, when we get to see her as a single mother who has fought to raise her child and make a life, and a person with flaws and feelings of her own as opposed to a personification of Justin’s insecurity who only interjects to limit his possibilities or spur him to action. In fact, most of the secondary characters in the novel are there solely for the convenience of the story or to artificially hasten the conflict. Of course, a premise where two people are on a cross-country trip makes it convenient for side characters to leave minimal impressions on the reader, but I found the hasty introduction and subsequent irrelevance of these characters to render them largely pointless.
Despite a strong start and central conflict, the denouement left a lot to be desired. In the immediate aftermath of the climax, the way the plot ties together—and especially, the way two main sources of conflict are addressed—is needlessly melodramatic. It shifts the tone of the story from a realistic, believable one into one more appropriate to fairytales. Erickson would have done a better job if she’d been careful to make the conclusion of her story as grounded and plausible as the rest was. Ultimately, despite its flaws, Trust the Focus is an intelligently crafted, fast-paced and enjoyable read. It tells a rather sweet (and quite steamy) friends-to-lovers story and does tap into realistic and important questions. A good book for a rainy day inside.