Review of For Real, by Alexis Hall

For RealI received a copy of For Real, by Alexis Hall from Netgalley.

Description from Goodreads:
Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

Another stellar read from Alexis Hall. I really shouldn’t be surprised. I’m getting pretty close to card-carrying fangirl status, if I’m honest. I thought this one was quite different from anything else I’d read by him; Shackles maybe coming closest. (Though, I haven’t read his whole catalogue.) But I was skeptical picking it up because of the BDSM theme. I simply haven’t had great luck with such books.

I get that BDSM is having its moment in the book world, right now. There seem to be an unusual number of ‘romances’ coming out using it as a schtick…or a theme, maybe. But I find that as much as I like the idea of it, I’m almost always disappointed, if not disgusted by them.

Because, here’s the thing, I don’t know what it’s like in a real-life BDSM pairing, but the overwhelming number of books I’ve read with BDSM read like what my dear mother, who despises anything that removes the sacred from the sexual, calls ‘mutual masterbation.’ In other words, the characters in the scenes feel not like two people engaging in  a meaningful way and having sex with one another, but two people individually using the other as an object for masterbation, connected by nothing more than proximity and ocular availability. And I rarely find that anywhere near as sexy as it’s intended to be. (My own interpretation of Dalziel’s jadedness, coloured by my own experiences of course, was that he was sensing this same tendency to force a partner into a fantasy mold that you act upon, instead of engage with on a personal, human level.)

This is where For Real shined for me. I understood both Dalziel and Toby’s needs and how/why they filled those needs for one another. I saw how hard they each worked to make the other happy and I understood the BDSM aspect of their relationship as something other than a fantasy one individual perpetuates on another. I didn’t need a narrator to repeatedly reassure me that the scene wasn’t abuse because the sub really was enjoying it, because I could see that and I understood why. And. It. Was. Beautiful.

Both Dalziel and Toby were wonderful characters. I especially appreciated that they weren’t flawlessly gorgeous people, beautiful to eachother, sure, but Dalziel was blunt and often angry looking and Toby was too skinny and had acne. I really love finding relatable, normalish people in books. I also thought Toby’s teenaged voice was marvellous, though I was admittedly skeptical about a man/boy who got a D and an F on their GCSEs having the vocabulary, poetic familiarity and general depth of thought of an Oxford scholar. But I was able to roll with it.

There were some fun side characters—the bisexual best friends with an obviously open relationship, Angel with the purposefully vague gender, Dominic the Dom (who played the alto-sax and seemed to be an unbearably nice guy), the free-love mother, the academics. Man I’d love to see Jasper and Sherry get their own book.

And as always, Hall managed to rip my heart out with the unintentional cruelties of lost love. I was never sure if I wanted Robert to suffer horribly or not—not for ending a relationship necessarily, relationships die, but for not seeing the ongoing injury his actions cause. Does such a person deserve to go on and be happy if he’s so unaware of his own destructive wake? Or am I just truly so unforgiving?

My complaints are few on this one: the overly intellectual nineteen-year-old I mentioned above, the fact that anyone as open and honest as Toby would be hard to find in real life, the fact that I didn’t feel I got to know Dalziel outside of his submission very well, and a couple of the scenes took on such a dream-like quality as to stand out as somewhat unmatched to the rest of the book.

All in all, I loved it. I’m not one who usually rereads books. My recall is such that I remember too much to ever have that fresh new feeling with a story. But unusually, I could see myself reading this again just to re-experience it.

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