Eli Bell is the only son of a police chief inspector and a forensic scientist. He’s grown up wonky in a world that only deals with the straight and narrow — and his new boyfriend isn’t helping.
Rob Hawkes is six feet of muscle, tattoos, and arrest warrants. A career criminal and a former guest of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, he’d rather hit Eli’s parents than sit down to dinner with them. One wrong move, and Rob could destroy Eli — and his family — without a second thought.
But this isn’t what it looks like.
Rob’s not in control here — and Eli’s the one to blame.
We all bought copies of this book, and be aware, although we’ve tried not to, there may be some spoilers ahead.
Karen: Having read, and loved Metzger’s Vivaldi in the Dark trilogy, I was very excited to read this book, and as it kicked off I think all of us were pleased that it featured an established couple, and that it read quite authentically British, actually it read northern.
It can’t be much of a surprise to know that the title does really cover a lot of what the book is about. People and situations aren’t always what they appear.
Fra: Metzger has been one of the most gorgeous discoveries of my reading year: I most definitely loved the Vivaldi in the Dark trilogy and I was also very excited to read What It Looks Like.
There is a long list of likes, for me, attached to this specific novel, the first of which is that its language is deliciously British – in fact scrap that – as Karen says it is unapologetically Northerner.
It grounds the characters and the story into its environment and it pulls no punches when it comes to dialogue which is realistically peppered with cursing, slang and the dialect of the region.
From the liberal use of “fuckin” to the very refreshing, uncensored, use of the baddest curse words of them all “cunt”, the language used in the book anchors the fiction into reality and gives it a weight lacking from similar novels in american english.
Miki: Absolutely. I agree with you on the likes. I discovered the author thanks to his Spy Stuff, and I felt it was different, honest, adorable, and very smart in the way he approaches certain topics. The language is rich and absolutely rooted with its culture and origin, which gives a lot of personality to the book, the voice of the narrator is clear and powerful, the dialogue is fantastic, and the fact that it takes on an already established couple, original and interesting. Also, I liked the way the author approaches Eli´s sexuality, fused with the plot, and not like a big totem that either is a big secret (and everything revolves around that), or is clearly said every two paragraphs, like the author wants to prove something.
Fra: The title is in fact very revealing of the novel denouement: Eli is not what it seems, Rob isn’t what he seems and the relationship between the two characters is not at all what it looks like. There are several layers of narrative in this novel and the title is almost like a not so gentle push to actually see beyond appearances and expectations, and trust the narrator to make choices based on his own experience and not the expectations placed upon him by both his family and the society he inhabits.
At the most superficial of levels what this looks like is a relationship between two wildly different young people: the son of police officials – firmly ensconced in their middle classes lives and beliefs, and a tattooed ex con who is bound to be dominating and abusing Eli. The almost immediate look to the intimate goings on in the couple dynamics puts that particular misconception to rest pretty early in the narrative while still being the critical issue in all arguments between Eli, his family and ultimately Rob. Rob and Eli are equals in their relationship and the BDSM element confirms the equal status of both men.
Onto the next level and what this book looks like is a commentary about Eli’s sexuality – which in a way it is – but not in the usual way. On the one hand obviously the main character’s sexuality is critical to the narrative on the other it is not big deal. I mean this in the most complimentary way. Eli’s sexuality – and consequently the novel – is not an issue. It doesn’t consume Eli with the “oh I have a secret” “oh I must accept myself and if I do everybody will hate me” “oh I shall now offer a lecture on the issues of gender and sexuality to the people who read this”. Eli’s sexuality – simply put – just is: he is 100% sure of who he is, how he likes it and what he wants from the world around him, including his partner and his family. There is no dramatised agony of secrets keeping and a big tragic revelation to move the narrative along.
If there were ever any doubts ever about the validity of the own voice argument this book should dispel them all. Eli’s voice is natural, realistic, affirmative, strong and doesn’t have to explain itself as the confidence Eli exudes about who he is is possibly the best success of this novel.
Karen: One of the strengths in this book for me, was that Eli wanted to get Rob and his family, especially his dad, to get on. In so many LBGTQ romance novels the families are either seen as the most accepting and lovely people or as unfeeling insensitives just there to destroy happiness. Eli’s family were coming to terms with who Eli was just as much as he was, but they clearly cared a lot, and felt that they were actually being supportive. The arguments that Eli and his family had, going over the same ground over and over, were reassuringly realistic. Miki raised a question though, should we be looking for character growth and movement to something- be it acceptance or not ?
Fra: The family dynamics were very well done in my opinion. The very fact that Eli and his folks – especially his father, are basically constantly having the same argument, if slightly repetitive from a narrative perspective, makes the book even more close to reality for me.
Don’t we all have the same core argument with our parents and to an extent with our partner? My personal experience is that yes we do – fundamentally, critically, we do have the one argument over and over again. I admit that although the actual argument feels real when in it, it is also true that you get glimpses of how it is used as a narrative tool and that did take some of the enjoyment out of the reading experience.
Miki: Ok, I agree. Evidently, we always have the same arguments related to those topics that are the core to the usual fights with our beloved ones, but we are talking here about a book. A novel. A fantasy that, even if is contemporary and without magic elements, it is anyway literature. And that demands certain things to the narrative and the plot, and not a literal reproduction of 20 years of life. That´s why I felt that dynamic between Eli and his family was unnecessarily repetitive. I don´t need a mirror of my life, I want a story that flows and that is able to show me (in this context) a realistic dynamic but with movement and character growth. And I think we were getting there with the book. But then, someone decided the book needed a more “classic” approach. That the plot was lacking the elements to make the book a typical romance. And that´s when the book started to crumble for me.
Fra: I think that at first look, Eli’s copper family’s objections to his relationship with Rob is all purely based on Rob’s appearance, previous history with the law and his potential to turn abusive as his sibling’s boyfriend had.
As impassioned looks at middle class social assumptions go this one is a powerful one. Rob,whom the reader sees first through the MC eyes as a god, the perfect lover, is constantly judged by the standards of the MCs family and their place in society. It is almost easy to fall into step with the respectable Bells and judge him solely on his appearance, social class and rough language. And yet Eli’s is a quietly strong presence, a reliable narrator who knows exactly what Rob is like and so – as readers we pay attention.
But at a deeper level, at the what it is like – if you will – the critical issue in the argument between Eli and his parents on the suitability of Rob as boyfriend material is deeply rooted on Eli’s choices and sexuality and that parental myth that silence and support, demands and guidance are the same thing.
Because yes Eli’s parents and sister think they are being supportive but all they are doing is judging and failing miserably at the type of support Eli needs and gets unconditionally from Rob and his family at that.
Massive shout out to the Hawkes at this point. Rough, chaotic, unconventional by necessity and still more intrinsically supportive of both Rob and Eli than the quintessentially middle class Bells.
Karen : The other strength was how fluid and equal the relationship between Eli and Rob was, there was no smaller man/ larger man nonsense- just the revealing of a relationship that was honest and trying to go somewhere. It was easy to forget at times that these were young men 21 and 24 respectively, and at other times they behaved like teenagers. I found the book very sex positive as well, sex was an integral part of Eli and Rob’s relationship , so the sex scenes never felt like they were there for just titillation.
Fra: oh Karen! I loved that this relationship was mid way and that the narrative is about taking it to the next level.
I loved that Rob was so intrinsically romantic and that yes the sex was positive and affirming.
I do admit, I have so before, that BDSM makes me rather uncomfortable, but I appreciate where the author is coming from here and the “scenes” never appear voyeuristic or gratuitous. If anything, in the privacy of their own safe spaces is where we readers see exactly what the relationship between Eli and Rob is like: a relationship based on equality and a whole lot of respect and understanding of each other needs and desires.
Miki: Yes to this. It was so so refreshing to read. That´s why I felt so enraged with that plot resolution. I still feel someone that was not the author decided it was necessary to resolve the issue between Rob and Eli´s family in a conventional “white middle class” way. The author chooses to resolve this conflict forcibly and tie all the loose ends (unnecessarily) using something completely absurd, incoherent; a scene that falls in the list of “What to put in your book to be sold like hotcakes,” and that smells like a mediocre romance US author, smells of sulfur, as Chavez would say. It is the First World telling us again, in dichotomous terms, what is good and cute, and what is bad and ugly. And personally, I couldn’t enjoy the epilogue because it comes after that ridiculous ending. So you can’t expect me to go all “awww” after you put your superiority complex in the middle of your book.
Karen: So, until about 70% this was a high scoring book for me, yes I had a few niggles with the repetition in the arguments, but having discussed this, on balance they were realistic then something happened to the plot that threw me. It also sparked a big debate here at Inglorious, second only to the Great religion debate. Trying very hard not to give anything away, the book became very US traditional . Until this point, other than a few ‘gottens’ it read true to me, and I find that important, and I don’t mean just on the dialogue, the book didn’t try and glamourise things, and of course it’s primarily a romance, but does that mean that every loose end needs to be tied up and resolved ?
Fra: I agree with both of you, and this is why, when it comes to the final development and narrative resolution, I also got disappointed.
This novel would have worked very well without pushing Rob and Eli’s family together. It would have still worked if Eli had walked out of his unsupportive family and refused to have anything to do with them ever again (which was my preference but I have a known issue with authority, especially of the family type, so..)
Unfortunately this fiercely European novel, with its realistic language and strong own narrative voice, sort of turns very “usian” all of a sudden.
In a disconcerting move, we end up with all ends nicely tied up with a pretty ribbon. The plot is dragged on by one of the most overused narrative devices in the genre – the noble act of the “rough” character which makes his innate goodness miraculously visible to the people who has been judging him until about 5 minutes ago.
And considering what Miki said, this is a novel which up to this point had been fiercely European, unapologetically British and strongly literary all of a sudden turns into the usual U.S m/m tripe; where all ends have to be tied up and the distinction between good and evil (in this case between working class and middle class) has to be overcome.
We did end up having one of our most heated discussions on this point and although we came at it from different angles we did all agree that the ending felt off, edited,if you will, to please an audience foreign to the first 70% of the novel.
That said, I loved the epilogue: I thought it was very romantic.
In summary we did enjoy this book very much: it is strong and realistic and conveys the strength of own voices in a literary way. The ending was the weakest part of this novel but we’d still recommend it wholeheartedly.
Buy It here
A general note from all of us: we have decided that during the month of October we will be reviewing only books written outside of the united states. We feel a strong need to detox from the cultural dominance of u.s fiction, especially contemporary, and to reclaim our own cultural identity while exploring novels from all over the world. We are very excited about this month’s reading list and look forward to share our musings with you all.