Title: A Careful Heart
Author: Ralph Josiah Bardsley
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Length: 312 Pages
Category: Literary Fiction
At a Glance: From a quiet novel of self-discovery to a turbulent exploration of love and friendship, Ralph Josiah Bardsley delivers another beautiful novel exploring the human condition.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Travis Gaines and Stephen Davis are as close as two best friends can be. Born less than a month apart, they grew up as neighbors in a small northern New Hampshire town. After college, they make their way together to Boston, craving the excitement and fast pace of New England’s biggest city.
As they get their bearings in Boston, Travis falls hard for Benson, a senior executive at the financial services firm where he works. Benson is wealthy, handsome, and well connected among Boston’s well heeled. At first it seems like Benson is everything a guy could ever want, but behind that glossy veneer is a dark side that threatens to tear Travis and Stephen’s friendship apart and change their lives forever.
Review: Ralph Josiah Bardsley quickly became a favorite author last year after the release of his brilliant and beautiful The Photographer’s Truth, which followed on the heels of his celebrated debut novel, Brothers, an equally eloquent novel. While A Careful Heart didn’t draw me in quite as effortlessly from the start as the other two novels, it is nonetheless a beautiful and compelling story in its own right by its end, and with its release, this author has done nothing less than cement his place on my must-read authors list.
A Careful Heart is different in scope from Bardsley’s first two novels, spanning a number of years and tackling an extraordinarily difficult subject while contrasting two relationships—as well as testing a friendship. This story begins with the introduction of best friends Travis and Stephen, whose childhood bond grew strong in their small New Hampshire town. They’re more brothers than friends, in all the ways that count, despite their differences in personality. In fact, it might be because of their differences that their connection strengthened from child- through young adulthood and beyond. Travis is the extrovert to Stephen’s introvert, and this distinction becomes more relevant as the story progresses. There is growth and revelation in their high school years, as one would expect, for Travis in particular when Stephen catches him with another boy. This might have tested a lesser friendship but instead serves to show readers how deep and unconditional their bond is.
Soon after we’re introduced to Travis and Stephen, we meet a teenage Gabe in what at first blush feels like a non-sequitur in the storyline, considering he has no connection to either of the boys, their hometown, or to the narrative up to that point. Gabe’s presence becomes significant later, however—integral to Stephen’s evolution, to be precise—after Travis and Stephen move to Boston, post-college graduation. Gabe and his dad have some heartfelt conversation which not only reinforces Gabe’s characterization when we meet him again as an adult but also makes a staunch character out of Gabe’s father. Gabe himself is nothing less than wonderful and upstanding, and it’s through him that we eventually see a new Stephen emerge from Travis’s shadow.
This novel exacts an emotional response from readers and commands a deeper investment as Travis and Stephen both enter relationships with two vastly different men—Travis with an older man, Benson, with whom he works; Stephen with Gabe, who’s now a Boston cop. It’s here that this novel digs its hooks in as Stephen, who is only now discovering his attraction to men—or, to be more precise, his attraction to the cheeky and charming Gabe—and it’s here that we watch Travis lose himself in a toxic relationship. Travis’s circumstances are, sadly, far too common and his shame all too realistic. Bardsley doesn’t pull his punches as this novel’s dramatic elements reach their zenith, and as they hit home, it solidifies the growing distance between Stephen and Travis.
As is Bardsley’s style, A Careful Heart is a character driven novel. Rather than flashy and melodramatic, his work is rich in realism and at times taps into a darker vein of the human condition. His characters are layered by familial connections and friendships, they find love and suffer losses, they are ordinary people who are sometimes faced with extraordinary challenges and choices and hardships. This story is mapped out at its start as a quiet journey of self-discovery but as the twists and turns of life bring Travis and Stephen to a crossroads, it becomes fraught with the fears and frustrations of life’s perfect imperfections. It begs a deeper level of empathy from its readers and delivers on the investment in the end.
You can buy A Careful Heart here: