“Every relationship has at least one really good day. What I mean is, no matter how sour things go, there’s always that day. That day is always in your possession. That’s the day you remember. You get old and you think: well, at least I had that day. It happened once. You think all the variables might just line up again. But they don’t. Not always.” –Charles Baxter
Just Between Us is J.H. Trumble’s third novel. It re-acquaints us with Luke Chesser, who we met in her first novel Don’t Let Me Go. So many times I have loved a book by a new author desperately. I have awaited the next book and the next with heretofore unknown levels of anticipation only to be heartbroken by the disappointment when the follow up books don’t live up to the standards set in the debut. This is NOT the case with J.H. Trumble. All three of her novels have maintained the quality level of writing, editing and publishing that the first book established. Trumble is a genius. She doesn’t crank out a book every month or two, but when she does release one, you can count on a deeply moving story that will stay with you. A story that will make you feel things deeply and cry and laugh along with the characters she creates.
I fell in love with Luke in Don’t Let Me Go and was looking forward to him getting his own shot at the happiness he was unable to find in DLMG. In Just Between Us, we find Luke a junior in high school. His father is very disapproving of him and very hard on him. His parents have separated once already due to his father’s hatred of his sexuality. Luke plays clarinet in the marching band. There is a new band tech (kind of a section leader) who catches more than just Luke’s eye.
Curtis Cameron is kind of a legend within the marching band. He is a former student, only two years older than Luke. When Curtis graduated from high school, he went away to college. Curtis let go and lived a wild, drunken, sex-filled freshman year. He was reckless, and often didn’t remember who he had sex with the night before or if they used a condom. He quickly tired of that life style and the way it left him feeling about himself. He decided to stay closer to home for his sophomore year and to be more mature and responsible. He is helping out his former band director by working with the current band over the summer.
Luke and Curtis find out that they are neighbors. They fall into a relationship which finds them both developing strong feelings quickly. During a hurricane and it’s aftermath, they work closely together to help each others’ families out and those of their entire neighborhood. Curtis’s sister can see the developing feelings. Their mother is dead and it is just the two of them with their dad.
Curtis gets a phone call from a former lover telling him that Curtis had given him HIV. Curtis’s world caved in on him. At first he didn’t want to get tested. He just couldn’t. When he finally did get tested, he was positive. He couldn’t deal with the diagnosis. He waited weeks to accept it. During this time, he had limited contact with Luke, who was already in love with him. When they did have any sexual contact (not penetrative sex) he would freak out and clean them up immediately. Then he would push Luke even further away. This was all part of Curtis’s inability to accept the fact that he was HIV positive. Months go by and Curtis is keeping Luke at a distance. He still hasn’t sought treatment as the virus progresses.
On a nice Fall day, Luke takes his brother, Matt, out to practice his fly fishing casting for his Boy Scout badge. Matt has a serious allergy to ant bites and is supposed to carry and Epi-pen with him at all times. He has left it at home and gets bitten repeatedly. Matt’s reaction causes him to stop breathing. Luke calls 911, then Curtis, who comes right away. The EMTs are able to get Matt breathing and Curtis takes Luke along to the hospital.
Luke’s mother is a doctor at the hospital, so she joins them pretty quickly in the ER. Matt will be fine, and Curtis is there for Luke. He takes him home and feeds him and cares for him and tries to assuage Luke’s guilt over not making sure the Epi-pen was in Matt’s pocket. Luke’s father shows up and after Curtis leaves, he hits Luke. This is the final straw for Luke’s mom, Dad is gone for good.
As Curtis comes to terms with his health and tells his father, a weight is lifted. He gets treatment and soon, his viral load is improving. The side effects of the drugs are not pleasant but they are saving his life. He joins a support group and is able to see others with HIV living happy, fulfilling lives. But Curtis still keeps Luke at a distance. They are still in love and have no interest in any other guys. By the end of the book, there is hope for them. But, in Just Between Us as in Trumble’s other novels, it is just a hint. Just enough to make my heart jump and make me smile. Smile big!
I have said it before, but it bears saying again, J.H. Trumble excels at feelings (or as my friend Kade calls them, feels!) I felt the pain rip through Curtis when he got his diagnosis. I felt the joy jumping around in Luke’s stomach during their first kiss. I smiled along with them, laughed with them and cried with them. Boy, did I cry with them. I wanted to hit Luke’s dad really, really hard. I wanted to hug them all (except Luke’s dad). To be fair, daddy dearest did show signs of softening by the end of the book. That is Trumble’s style. No one is irredeemable. There is always hope.
No matter the seriousness of the issue tackled in Just Between Us, and make no mistake, it is not to be taken lightly, Trumble gives us hope. She handles the subject with a delicacy and honesty that gets the message across that it is very serious. She also illustrates that in life, serious subjects are usually surrounded by love, family, friends and laughter. It’s not all about the hopelessness and fear and shame.
Just Between Us is a great book. It is appropriate for the YA audience while still being mature and layered enough for her adult fans. This book doesn’t come out until late September. Please do yourself a favor if you haven’t read Don’t Let Me Go and Where You Are please read them while waiting for this release. They are all serious and emotional for the most part. But as she always does, J.H. Trumble gives us hope.
I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.