Title: After Ben (Seattle Stories: Book One)
Author: Con Riley
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Length: 300 Pages
At a Glance: After Ben is a book that I’ve had on my wish list for years. Was it worth the wait? Yeah. Yeah it was, and then some. Heartwrenching but so, so worth it.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: A year after the sudden death of his longtime partner, Ben, Theo Anderson is still grieving. The last thing he’s looking for is a new lover. But as Theo soon discovers, sometimes life has other plans.
While Theo experiences a powerful physical attraction to fellow gym member Peter, it’s his new online friend, Morgan, who provides the intellectual challenge to make him come alive. Morgan is witty, brave, and irreverent, and Theo is ready to take the plunge… until he discovers Morgan might be half his age.
Theo’s late partner was significantly older—enough to strain Theo’s relationship with his family—and the potential of another relationship being cut short leaves him gunshy. Theo needs to lay Ben’s memory to rest, reconcile with his family, and rekindle neglected friendships if he’s to start afresh with a new lover. But Theo isn’t the only one with a past.
His biggest challenge, in living after Ben, might not be his to face.
Review: Sometimes grief is an island. Death is a common experience shared across humankind and yet, while loss is something we share with family, with friends, grief itself is one of the single most personal emotions we own—we absorb it to the core—and it can leave us feeling bereft and hopeless and spiraling even in a sea of people. In After Ben, we meet Theo Anderson a year after Ben’s sudden death, a year in which Theo has suffered through the isolation, the anger, the bargaining, the depression. And, as his story begins, we watch him struggling with acceptance that the man he loved for fifteen years, the man he still loves, the man who lived each and every moment to its fullest, is gone, stolen. And Theo, after his life’s foundation dropped out from under him, has lost part of himself and his identity. He has lost a place marker in life as the man Ben de Luca loved with everything he was. But now, it’s time for Theo to rejoin the living.
Con Riley serves grief in prodigious amounts in this novel, enough so that Theo’s reminiscing and mourning allows the reader to know Ben in a way that is intimate though he’s already gone before the story begins. And, as a result, it makes Theo’s loss more intimate as well. In the moments that Theo sank, I sank with him, his grief a living thing attempting to consume each step of progress he makes. While this emotional bond and the consequent heartache was difficult at times, it’s a testament to Riley’s adept storytelling and gift for inspiring patience in her readers that I resolved to stand with Theo as his journey unfolded. And the payoff was so worth it in the end because it made his happiness that much sweeter.
One aspect of Theo’s story, integral to his recovery, is his emergence from the cocoon of his grief, and the baby steps he takes as he contemplates what it means to move forward without Ben. It revolves around a new acquaintance, Peter, who wants far more than Theo can offer; and ends with Morgan, a man Theo connects with in a cerebral way on an online forum. Their connectedness ends up meaning everything to both of them and to their stories—who they are as individuals as well as who they can become together. If there was a single mystery in this book, it was “Who is Morgan, and when will Theo finally meet him?”
Con Riley does a fantastic job of throwing in red herrings and possible suspects as to which new man in his life will finally draw Theo out while he ponders so many conflicts and issues, one being the nine-year age difference that existed between he and Ben, which caused a rift between Theo and his parents, specifically his mom, who believed Ben was far too old for her son. Theo’s solution is never to get involved with someone younger than he, for fear of leaving that person behind the way Ben left him. The logic is faulty, though, yes? Because life offers no guarantees and death doesn’t discriminate by age.
As Theo begins to repair long neglected friendships that went fallow as he mourned, he is also building something tangible and yet untouchable with Morgan. It’s one thing to email and text, but an altogether different proposition meeting face-to-face, and Morgan is hesitant for good reasons. When an incidental slip of information causes Theo to shut down and freeze Morgan out of his virtual life, it takes a little intervention from a couple of my favorite interns ever, Joel and Evan, to jumpstart the stalled connection. What makes this romance so unique, in the end, is the way Con Riley built it through little more than pixels and e-ink, and I don’t mean in the way that I read it but in the way that Theo and Morgan bonded well before they ever laid eyes on each other. In a genre where appearance plays such a significant role in the aesthetic of a romantic storyline, it’s refreshing to read a slow-burn romance in which the characters fall in love with each other’s minds first.
Character driven novels are only as successful as the characters populating them, and everything rests on the shoulders of the people who are expected to maintain a reader’s interest without some grand spectacle of concurrent storyline for the sake of added drama. After Ben, even in its most poignant moments, is still a quiet and sincere book. It’s a story of lightning striking not once but twice in one man’s life, and it embraces the definition of what it means to love to its highest power. The story is rounded out by a robust cast who came into Theo’s life both before and after Ben, some of whom I fell madly in love with, adding such richness to this novel. After Ben is a book that I’ve had on my wish list for years. Was it worth the wait? Yeah. Yeah it was, and then some. Heartwrenching but so, so worth it.
You can buy After Ben here: