Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: The Night Porter

The Night PorterThe Night Porter by Sue Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Max Whiteley is an expatriate Texan, working as a night porter in a small, old-style London hotel. Robert Armitage checks into Max’s hotel three days before his wedding. Max has seen many men like Robert walk in through his hotel’s door (for some reason his hotel seems to be popular for prospective grooms to wait for their wedding day there), and he has seen them walk out again. Many of those men seek out a last sexual adventure before they get married, some at one of the nearby clubs, and some – with the good-looking night porter.

Max is immediately attracted to his handsome fellow countryman, but he knows from the beginning that this attraction can’t go anywhere, so he fights it. Every step of the way, as it turns out, since the two men keep running into each other, until they end up spending an entire afternoon together with Max playing tourist guide for an excited and wide-eyed Robert. It is during this afternoon that Max realizes he could easily fall for Robert. Even though Max knows that he’s already deeper in than is good for his peace of mind, he allows himself to be dragged along. He doesn’t resist Robert’s innocent curiosity, Robert’s fierce need. Max takes another step and another, indulging in a dream which he knows is impossible to come true and yet is desperate to make happen, until it’s too late and he wakes up in Robert’s arms.

Max and Robert are polar opposites. Max has had countless flings, but he’s never been in a relationship. He’s strictly and openly gay whereas Robert is a virgin, as he has comitted himself to not having extramarital sex, same as his fiance with whom he has been together for four years. He has obviously never dared to explore his own sexuality, although he seems to be tentatively interested in men as well as in women. However, Robert is a healthy twenty-three year old who is hurting for sex due to his self-inflicted celibacy, and when he picks up from Max that there might be the slightest possibility for a mutual attraction, Robert pushes and pushes until he gets what he wants – and then some, since the way Max makes him feel has the potential to actually turn Robert’s self-perception upside down.
It is Max, though, who should have nipped the whole thing in the bud. Still, Max sends out mixed signals to Robert. It is not entirely due to Robert’s pushing that they land in bed together, and it is Max who doesn’t stop Robert from going further along the way while he still can. He’s the more experienced, the one who should have known better. It is painful to watch how Max drifts off into his dream world where he can have a future with Robert. There is one heartbreaking moment where the story is actually on a knife edge, where I as a reader sat biting my nails, wanting to yell at the guys to open their eyes, to take the leap of faith, to realize that they are made for each other… and again it’s Max who tips the scales. Now that it’s way too late for both of them, he applies full brakes. It is not so much Robert who walks out on Max, but Max who shoves Robert out of the door and into the arms of his fiancee.

Max, as a character is not easy to take to. For one, he’s an incorrigible dreamer, always looking for something, or rather someone, as in Mr. Right, while at the same time putting up with Mr. Wrong more often than not. He is also very unconfident which shows in the choices he makes: working a lonely, mundane job in an unremarkable hotel, messing around with men who he can be sure won’t want anything else but sex from him instead of really going after his stated aim. He comes across as a coward, not least because there is obviously no reason for the way he lives: he is good-looking, educated, from a wealthy family. His reasons remain veiled.
Robert, on the other hand, is easy to like; very much like a big bear cub. He is rather naive although he goes for what he wants with determination. At times, it seems that Robert is the one who falls prey to Max instead of the other way round. Robert doesn’t emerge unscathed, not at all; sex is a big thing for him, after all, and Max makes Robert throw all his principles overboard. What’s more, Max opens Robert’s eyes to a new image of himself, one which Robert is far from accepting, but which is bound to cast a shadow over his marriage and maybe his entire future life.

Forced separation is often used as a plot device, although it has usually happened in the past with the respective story starting when the heroes meet unexpectedly, years later. What we have here is the back story without the HEA resolve, unhappiness in the making, and it’s so sad to watch. It’s also true, for that’s what life is like most of the times.

Opinions may differ on this story. It doesn’t end on a hopeful note, it leaves the reader hanging there, longing, just like it leaves Max, but still…still…there’s the what if, there’s the if only, and the imagination starts spinning – all by itself.

The writing, by the way, was great, although I didn’t much care for the author chewing away at the “Buttercup and Westley” motive.

Don’t read this when you’re already depressed, it will move you to tears. This story is a perfect match for Dreamspinner’s “Bittersweet Dreams” motto, a love which is foredoomed to failure and yet strong enough to touch people’s hearts. It did mine, anyhow.

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  1. I'm glad to see this. This has been on my Dreamspinner bookshelf for a while, as I can't quite make up my mind. But this is a great review, and I'm in the mood for fresh stories. Many thanks!

  2. You're welcome, Christopher. Despite the sad ending, it's an enjoyable read.