Tender, Belinda McKeon
Published February 16th 2016 by Lee Boudreaux Books
Hardcover, 416 pages
Source: Galley from publisher
When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’s life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help — but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear.
In Tender, Catherine leaves her sheltered life in small town Ireland for her first year of college. She studies, she drinks, she experiments but still is waiting for more. Then she meets James.
Extraordinary. That was what they were. That was a James word; that was one of the words she had got, over the summer, from James.
Catherine feels her friendship with James is the extraordinary thing she’s been waiting for her whole life. James is funny and witty; he’s loud and attention drawing. Catherine realizes this is what a relationship could feel like – and then James comes out to her. Mind you, our setting is Ireland, just years after homosexuality has been decriminalized, but definitely not accepted. Catherine claims to be accepting of James but her feelings are more complicated than she is willing to admit. It’s not easy being in Catherine’s head all the time, her ups and downs are painful at points. I found myself cringing in a few places as I was reading waiting to see what she’d do next.
Tender just put my mind back to that place in college where everything is HUGE. You can’t see beyond your own personal crises and mistakes are made – that wasn’t just me right? As things build to a personal crescendo with Catherine and James, so too does McKeon’s writing. I loved the fragmented quality of the text matching Catherine’s thoughts. It was amazing how the story flowed from the beginning beautiful prose to to the stilted lines and then on again.
I expected Tender to go out in an explosive crisis, but rather, McKeon’s quiet ending was even more powerful. There were explosions enough within the plot. I’ve been walking around for days reflecting back on Tender and that time in my own life and will definitely read this one again.
Thank you Lee Boudreau Books for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!