Kissing Ethan rocked.
That’s the introduction of this book. The sequel to One Man Guy where I recently did an updated review, Alek and Ethan have now been dating for almost six months. We later learn that’s the longest any other couple at their high school have stayed together. And their six-month anniversary is fast approaching, and not only that, but since summer school ended, something different has happened between the two. In the past, they clearly made each other happy and enjoyed each other’s company massively, but here it’s much bigger. They now feel their relationship could be very serious. Have they said the “l” word yet? Not yet. Have they had sex yet? They’ve spent a lot of time in bed and, most likely in their underwear, but no, not yet. I suspect after they nearly broke up in the first book right before they were about to, the fact they got back together was more important. Well, it’s almost Christmas, and for Armenians like him, their holidays are a bit wonky, not just because 30 different relatives are coming for the family dinner this week, nor that Alek is turning 15, but the calendar and way of celebration itself are different. There’s also something happening in Saturday School, a parody of Sunday School Alek and his older brother Nik are a part of. And as Ethan’s desire to be more up front and personal with his boyfriend steadily increases, Alek also begins trembling when Ethan’s ex, Remi, arrives back like a computer virus, all picture perfect and irresistible and celebrity-esque.
The reason I don’t read a lot of romance novels, and have not even ever picked up a book with two real-life characters kissing or embracing on the cover, is because I’ve felt because I have stories of my own, reading an entire book on someone else’s love story without much else seemingly going for it wouldn’t be very enticing. But Hold My Hand proved me wrong and now I might be against what I used to believe. I read this book in one sitting over two weeks ago, and what happens between Alek and Ethan and what they do about it still feels like I just put it down and am still processing the words on the page. Barakiva apparently wrote this book with a bit of pain, because he had to think back to the feelings of betrayal and loss, and he delivered with so much heartache and honest emotion I could practically see the tears on their faces.
Barakiva also sticks to the trials and tribulations of an Armenian household. There was an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Penny was forced to have lunch with a “lovely” Armenian family, where it was eight courses of lamb. He lets a few things go, and I admittedly did not like the dismissal of one character from the last book, and I was a little concerned at first about getting rid of Ethan’s nickname for Alek, but then again, this last thing allows us to think about the progression of their relationship, going from best kissing buds to inseparable (perhaps) soulmates. Six months in a teenage relationship, especially one with almost two years of age difference, is about five times that long for any adult relationship. You can feel the similarities of the personalities of the characters from the last book, and differences for how they’ve grown a little and have new interests to tackle.
Something that either broke or healed my heart was something Ethan says. Well, actually, there are about a dozen things he says that I either laughed out loud at or I had to stop reading because I was worried I was going to drop a tear on the page. But there’s one in particular near the ending about how he feels about himself where I can’t imagine a single reader not relating. It solidifies the idea that one of the many reasons this is a romance novel that stupendously works is the both of them love being with each other and don’t end up dismissive when something goes wrong.
The new and old characters are all delightful. Arno is another Armenian from Alek’s church who’s going through a relateably devastating incident. Alek ends up stretching this incident to a length no one else is really comfortable with, and making it one of the top priorities was at first questioning, but what Alek said about why he was doing it was honest and sweet, thinking about the precedent it would set for others. Reverend Father is multi-dimensional as well, with him and Alek having a very deep conversation about the church that highlights arguments both simply and menacingly. Dustin is an extremely relatable new addition, not always sure of the best way to start a conversation but surprises us with a thoughtful two-sided way to end a rough argument. Becky, with her new taste in candy, is as frightening and hilarious and peppy as ever, and the inability of satisfaction from Alek’s parents brings us the same feel of relatability as the last book for how our parents’ condescension can sometimes be ridiculous. A character we’d only heard about in the last book is as instantly unlikeable as Barakiva wants us to feel about him, yet even he’s worth exploring.
There are various sensitive topics here, but the one that applies the biggest to the plot is the idea of cheating and being forgiven. Obviously, there are loads of situations in the world that shouldn’t be forgiven, and if they are leads to double the pain for the forgiver. Barakiva was aware of this book’s responsibility, and he wrote some of this based on heartbreak he personally went through. That’s exactly how to write, inking something that made him feel worthless and channeling all his emotion into it.
A nice extra touch was a sense of stargazing. We may not get another one of these books, and there are notices where the characters ask themselves what they’re going to do when they grow up and what they want to accomplish. It leaves a lingering impression on what will probably happen over time, allowing reader fans like me to sit back and imagine.
My advice: Read One Man Guy first, whatever means necessary. Then read Hold My Hand, maybe waiting a little while before to let yourself think about it further. These two books are masterful works of art that look deep into the human heart whenever it isn’t making us giggle with its sly humour or making us envious of the touching lips of the protagonists.